The folks behind the Broadway revival of "The Elephant Man" have done something odd to Bernard Pomerance's play about John Merrick, the horribly deformed young man who galvanized London society in the late 19th century. They have removed its heart.
This version, which opened Sunday at the Royale Theatre, is clinical and chilly, not without interest, mind you, but its fascination is more cerebral than emotional, something to admire rather than embrace.
Director Sean Mathias has imprisoned the play in a busy, high-concept production that suggests "Sweeney Todd" by way of Bertolt Brecht. From the minute you enter the theater, you are greeted by the title-- in big, bold, block letters-- on stage. Each scene is announced by a statement projected on a screen and then intoned out loud by somber-faced cast members. It's sort of a Victorian incarnation of a Greek chorus.
Those projections, if not the chorus, were in the original more than 20 years ago. Taken together, they distance the audience from the story and frame the title character as a case study to be analyzed rather than as a human being to be celebrated.
Yet Pomerance's tale showcases the triumph of a very human spirit, personified by the sensitive, almost saintly Merrick. This is a man who finds safe haven in a London hospital after spending much of his life in second-rate carnivals as a freak attraction-- and then blossoms. What's more, he becomes the confidante of celebrated actresses, statesmen and even royalty.
"Mother Nature uncorseted" is how Merrick's scurrilous sideshow manager describes the man's physical abnormalities. Billy Crudup, without resorting to makeup or artificial devices, does a remarkable job suggesting Merrick's deformities. His back slightly twisted, Crudup walks with a loping, staggered gait. The close-cropped actor also affects a high-pitched, almost childlike voice, slightly distorted but still intelligible.
There's even the slight hint of a shy smile behind the man's contorted face, suggesting the goodness and intelligence of a creature shunned because of his looks. Yet for all its impressive physicality, Crudup's performance doesn't resonate beyond its surface dexterity.
Maybe that's because Merrick is often lost in all the stage activity that swirls around him. Set designer Santo Loquasto has created an eerie sideshow setting that includes funhouse mirrors that distort images of the actors as they work their way through the play. It also features ominous, even threatening music by Philip Glass and spooky lighting by James Ingalls.
For much of the time, the focus shifts to Merrick's rescuer, Frederick Treves, who lectures in anatomy at the hospital. Treves is the epitome of success - a teacher and a doctor, "a scientist in the age of science," and "In an English age, an Englishman."
His plans for Merrick-- "normality--as far as possible"-- are carefully laid out with the confidence of a true believer in order. "Rules make us happy because they are for our own good," he tells his scarred patient. Yet it is the good doctor who eventually realizes that it is those rules that have caused Merrick the most grief.
Rupert Graves impressively conveys the physician's anguish as his belief in society crumbles just as Merrick's is becoming stronger. Kate Burton, in the production's third starring role, makes a zesty Mrs. Kendal, the spirited actress who finds an emotional and physical connection to Merrick. The large supporting cast, which plays a variety of characters, is serviceable, yet often indistinguishable from one another.
"The Elephant Man" was an astounding success during the 1978-79 theater season, first off and then on Broadway, where such diverse performers as David Bowie and Mark Hamill eventually followed the mesmerizing Philip Anglim in the title role.
It's easy to see why they would want to portray John Merrick, a man who took such joy in the most ordinary things. "Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams," Merrick says in what should be the play's most touching moment. "Do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out?" It's those dreams that are hard to find on the cluttered stage of this production.
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