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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the Booth


  Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Bradley Cooper is best known for his films. His most recent, American Sniper, has earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He is currently giving a stunning stage performance in a revival of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play The Elephant Man, about the Victorian John Merrick, whose life was plagued by an “”elephant-like” disfigurement. The play is at the Booth Theater on West 45th Street through Feb. 22.

When we first meet Merrick, Dr. Treves (played by the striking actor Alessandro Nivola), the hospital administrator, has rescued Merrick from a horrendous carnival life as a two-pence freak attraction, and he has found him a place at the London Hospital in Whitechapel. Dr. Treves begins to describe the maladies of Merrick’s body in a lecture-style fashion. The real Dr. Teves took photographs of Merrick, and these are projected in the background. The most striking feature he points out is his enormous head. Its circumference is about the size of a man’s waist. As Dr. Teves talks about Merrick’s infirmities, Cooper’s normal body slowly turns into the malformed Merrick. His body twists, his stance changes, and even his speech becomes distorted. This is how Cooper will be playing Merrick for the rest of the evening.

Pomerance’s play is written as a sort of dramatic documentary of Merrick’s life. Merrick was a real person who was born in 1862 in Leicester, England as Joseph Carey Merrick – the doctor misunderstood the name Joseph and wrote it down as John. His mother had placed him at age three in the Leicester workhouse because she couldn’t bear the sight of him.

Pomerance’s play is written in tight scenes, almost like a piece of classical music. As the play progresses, we begin to see the real Merrick that has been buried under his deformity. His intelligence and his emotional feelings start to emerge. At the hospital, he becomes a person and a personality. Dr. Treves thinks Merrick might be supported by a donor for the rest of his life without a penny spent from hospital funds. But Merrick says that at one point he would feel more at home with the blind, where no one would be continuously staring at him.

Dr. Treves desires a normalcy for Merrick. He feels that he should lead a life that should include women. He tries out a nursing prospect, Miss Sandwich (Kathryn Meisle), but the sight of Merrick repels her. Then Dr. Treves thinks of Mrs. Kendal (a beautifully etched performance by Patricia Clarkson), an actress who might be able to hide her revulsion. Kendal is an invention of Pomerance, and she works. They form a friendship and the two talk about all sorts of things like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Merrick doesn’t think that Romeo feels that much for Juliet.

She admires the architectural model he’s making of St. Phillip’s Church with the one hand that still functions. Kendal looks at it carefully and declares, “Merrick is an artist.” The hoity toity of London all come to call on him like Princess Alexandra. Even the Prince of Wales sends him delicacies. 

Scott Ellis stages the production simply and concentrates mostly on the three main characters. He doesn’t include any of Pomerance’s Brechtian placards that the original 1979 New York production used, and the published script includes to forecast what will happen in each scene. The dramatic pace of the play flows right along, and in the end the effect is profoundly moving.

Timothy R. Mackabee’s austere set, with period costumes by Clint Ramis and appropriate Victorian lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, all accentuate the 19th century milieu. 

Cooper fell in love with The Elephant Man when he was 12 and saw the black and white film that was produced by Mel Brooks, directed by David Lynch and starred John Hurt. The film was not an adaptation of the play, but used the title and much of the content of the play. The film’s production company was successfully sued by Promerance.

Cooper was born 40 years ago in Philadelphia to an Irish father and an Italian mother. He majored in English at Georgetown and attended the Actors Studio at the New School in New York. That’s where became obsessed with the play and used it as his master’s thesis. Two summers ago, he put this production together at the Williamstown Playhouse in Massachusetts, and it was such a success there that this Broadway run was scheduled. If you can’t get into Cooper’s Broadway performance, he will be playing it this summer in London.


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