Bradley Cooper says that John Hurt’s portrayal of John Merrick in the 1980 film The Elephant Man made him decide to become an actor. It’s not hard to figure out why: Here’s the true story of a grotesquely deformed man living the sordid, squalid life of a freak-show exhibit in late 19th-century England until he’s rescued by Frederick Treves, an empathetic society doctor. Determined to “civilize” him, Treves introduces his increasingly famous patient to the best of London society, in which he flourishes no less ogled but in the far cushier surroundings of London Hospital, where he is given a permanent home.
Yes, that means Broadway has two heartstring-tugging revivals this season (along with the musical Side Show, reviewed last week). Good as Hurt was in the Oscar-nominated film, the Tony Award-winning play that preceded it is a different animal altogether: It requires the actor in the title role to transform himself into this ruined creature without the aid of heavy makeup and prosthetics. We in the audience are compelled to join the actor in his journey, using our imagination to complete the illusion of Merrick’s transformation from sickening spectacle to the toast of the town. The role was originated here by Philip Anglim, whose replacements in the original production included David Bowie and Mark Hamill; Billy Crudup last played Merrick on Broadway.
Cooper is the best Merrick yet, in a production sensitively staged by Scott Ellis first seen a couple of seasons back at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Cooper and Ellis have their cake and eat it too: Although the star suggests Merrick’s deformity with no more than a bent arm, a contorted mouth, twisted fingers and a hip-challenging limp, he is aided in the opening scene with blown-up slides of Merrick actually taken by Treves that leave no doubt about what both the man and his acquaintances actually had to contend with.
Cooper exudes accessibility and a sweetness of spirit evident in every role he’s played, and Merrick seems tailor-made for him: Treves wants to “normalize” the Elephant Man, who becomes adept at social chit-chat but also has spiritual encounters with a determined cleric and, following Treves’ initial introduction, a renowned actress who takes an increasingly intimate liking to him. Through each of these encounters, Merrick seems less and less shackled by his crippling deformities as his mind becomes challenged and free.
Freedom, of course, is an illusion too, as Treves is quick to point out: John must follow the rules of the social order. “They make us happy because they are for our own good,” which translates into a rather prim and in its way lethally confining velvet cell. Merrick himself is aware of this: When Treves’ boss and benefactor abruptly dismisses an employee for gawking at the patient, the doctor argues unconvincingly that the termination of a poor family man was merciful. “If your mercy is so cruel,” Merrick wonders, “what do you have for justice?”
Cooper achieves power in the performance by keeping everything low-key, including an almost off-hand delivery of the play’s best-known (and most mocked) line, “Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams.”
That line is emblematic of just how middle-brow The Elephant Man is, though like Noel Coward’s observation about the potency of cheap music, there’s little denying the sentimental power of the story of John Merrick.
The star has expert support from the agreeable performances of Alessandro Nivola as Treves, Patricia Clarkson as the actress Mrs. Kendal, Henry Stramm as the hospital chief Gromm and especially Anthony Heald doubling as Merrick’s freak-show handler and the priest determined to make a believer of this questioning man. Debating whether John Merrick was saved is one of the pleasant added benefits of this fine production.