Review: The Elephant Man

Elephant Man, The Booth Theatre

This proves – as no doubt it was intended to – that Bradley Cooper is a bona fide stage actor with considerable chops, not just a slumming movie star. Often, when a star of Cooper’s magnitude shows up on Broadway, the best news that can be expected is that they didn’t suck, but didn’t quite hold the stage either. Not the case here: Cooper is the real deal.

Based on the life of Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man tells the story of a 19th-century British man who became a star of the traveling freak show circuit. When a concerned doctor named Treves (Alessandro Nivola) takes Merrick in, the “elephant man” surprises him, not only with his quick intelligence, but also with his very human hunger for approval.

While Merrick’s deformities might seem to cry out for prosthetics (as were used in the 1980 David Lynch film of the same name), playwright Bernard Pomerance insists that he be portrayed by an able-bodied actor contorting himself into Merrick’s posture. Cooper is more than game for this, and pulls it off more naturally than any other actor I have seen in the role.

It doesn’t hurt that this is easily director Scott Ellis’s best work to date, finding as he does the humor and style in this often grim story. This is the most incisive direction I’ve seen from him, and he is much assisted by Timothy R. Mackabee’s fluid set design. Victorian in its details but minimalist in its fundamental conception, Mackabee’s approach is a marvellous marriage of imagination and function.

Pomerance has made the play as much Dr. Treves’s story as it is Merrick’s. Alessandro Nivola is excellent as the already deeply conflicted doctor, who is only driven further into confusion by Merrick’s predicament.

This may read like an unqualified rave; I have to admit that the play itself, while smart and engaging, is not one of my all-time favorites. Still, when faced with a production as immaculate as this one, it does prove hard to resist. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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