By Melanie Snyder
In a Broadway revival of The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 play about a tragically deformed Vic- torian outcast, played by the adored star of The Hangover takes the stage. Bradley Coo- per plays Joseph Merrick, suspensefully introduced at the start of the play as a sight that will “astound and amaze you.” It is unclear, however, whether the audience is dying to catch a glimpse of the dis- figured Merrick or of People magazine’s 2011 “Sexiest Man Alive.”
Despite an unlikely cast- ing choice, Cooper assumes the role effectively. He sug- gests Merrick’s form through minimalist means of contort- ing his own body. Between a slightly overdone limp and gasping breaths, the audience can truly understand and sympathize with Merrick’s struggle. Cooper’s portrayal of deformity through acting rather than the use of pros- thetics is refreshing in an age dominated by visual effects.
Merrick is the star of a traveling freak show circus, until he is taken under the care of Dr. Treves, played by Alessandro Nivola. Along with Patricia Clarkson, who plays the famous actress Mrs. Kendal, they bring out the brilliant and hopeful spirit in Merrick that lies beneath his deformed surface. He becomes famous throughout London, and in the process, becomes a sympathetic fig- ure in which those around him can see the best parts of themselves.
Nivola’s complex charac- ter achieves a great dynamic with Cooper on stage. But what is even more apparent is his character’s representa- tion of the overarching ideas of justice, freedom and so- cial order. Pomerance’s play intertwines the facts of Mer- rick’s life with long speeches and philosophical undertones that are clearly expressed, but are overkill and emotionally detached under Tony nomi- nee Scott Ellis’ direction
Despite effective acting and a compelling plot, Ellis’ final product on stage lacked depth as the characters be- came straightforward devices of the philosophical elements of the story. Consequently, the famously heart-wrench- ing play evokes little more than diluted pity towards Merrick, and somewhat to- wards Mrs. Kendal and Trev- es. With a talented cast, the play had great potential but ultimately did not astound or amaze.