Where does one of the world’s sexiest men go to transform himself into one of the more celebrated grotesques in history? Why, Broadway, of course–where Bradley Cooper, following in the footprints of David Bowie and Billy Crudup, is covering himself in burlap rags and contorting his handsome features as The Elephant Man, in a revival of Bernard Pomerance’a play, which was first performed in its current home, the Booth, in 1979. Cooper (who, largely unknown, stole Three Days of Rain from Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd and put himself on the map in its 2006 staging) says The Elephant Man inspired him to become an actor–not the play, but David Lynch’s unrelated 1980 film.
This is significant, as the play has a different emphasis. Cooper’s best moments come toward the beginning, when his pitifully deformed John Merrick, rescued from the degradation of sideshow life in Victorian London, is examined by his benefactor, Dr. Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola, as compellingly silky smooth here as he was in last season’s revival of The Winslow Boy). As slides of the actual Merrick are shown, Cooper, all but nude in his People magazine splendor, painstakingly pretzels himself into a convincing facsimile, minus the makeup that was part of John Hurt’s classic portrayal in the movie. It’s an eerie recreation that rings disturbingly true.
It’s also the emotional high point of the drama, which is less elephant than observant old owl, casting a critical eye on Merrick’s era. Polite society is at first appalled by the creature in their midst, than moved by his unexpected humanity, and gentlemanly refinement. He is, in the end, “one of us.” But perhaps too much so for Treves, who is at first enlightened by his charge, then challenged by Merrick as he begins to assert himself in his own gently bemused way. Of all his distinguished visitors, Merrick is most enamored with the actress Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson), an attraction she begins to share. Another, quite different nude scene ruptures the relationship between the two men, as the play shifts in the direction of Treves, whose own prejudices are laid bare.
The 2002 revival of the play, starring Crudup, suggested an AIDS metaphor. This telling, directed by Scott Ellis, is plain wrap and no frills, and frankly poky at two hours (with an intermission). It may be that the material holds no surprises anymore, or that Pomerance’s dissection of class and difference is old hat. The movie, which manages to be wilder and more sentimental, freeing our imagination and releasing our tears, casts a long shadow, despite the play’s hard-working star and a strong supporting cast that also includes journeyman Anthony Heald. Onstage, at least, I may be done with The Elephant Man, a stiff-jointed piece that here at least seems to resist interpretation. Or it may be The Tall Guy (1989) ruined me on the story forever.
Thanks to Cooper, The Elephant Man is a hit, and my issues aside we’ll be seeing another sexiest man alive in the part before long. Also faring well is another drama of a misfit, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a West End import now at the Barrymore. These transatlantic transfers, which unlike the frugal staging of The Elephant Man are full of bells and whistles and tricks to hold our attention, tend to leave me a little cold; Billy Elliot and Matilda, to name two, proved resistible. One I adored, however, was War Horse, amazing stagecraft wedded to an epic, heart-rending story, and Curious Incident, based as well on a beloved bestseller, shares its director, Marianne Elliott, and its humanistic viewpoint.
Scripted by Simon Stephens, the “curious incident” of the title vexes 15-year-old Christopher (recent Julliard grad Alex Sharp, in a brilliant performance), an Asperger’s child whose high functionality is tested by a mystery close to home. Far more comfortable with numbers than with people, Christopher is propelled outside his comfort zone by events that involve his uncomprehending father and absent mother, deeply flawed people who nonetheless have their reasons. All is revealed the way Christopher sees things, in cascades of vividly rendered multimedia. Bunny Christie’s set is an LED lightbox, capable of amazing, terrifying things, not least when Christopher boards a train, the sort of mundane activity that we take for granted. The flop West End import Ghost the Musical (yes, there was a Ghost the Musical) was sort of a test run for this theatrical technology; astonishing scenes like these are its fruition, and kudos to Paule Constable (lighting), Ian Dickinson for Autograph (audio), Finn Ross (video), Adrian Sutton (music), and Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (choreography) for a tightly integrated design.
The show draws us into Christopher’s mathematically precise, emotionally disorganized world so thoroughly that we’re wrenched out of it as it progresses toward its close, with a bittersweet final line. Lovely, sad, touching–and be sure to stay through the curtain call, for a humorous acknowledgment of the show’s technical wonders.
The curtain comes down on the musical Side Show today, after a brief, money-losing run; its second, after its debut in 1997. The piece has been kept alive by its Tony-nominated score, by Henry Krieger (the composer of Dreamgirls) and lyricist Bill Russell, which includes some gorgeous songs, like the opening number “Come Look at the Freaks” and two contemporary standards, “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” and “I Will Never Leave You.” Then and now, the trouble is no one but buffs wants to hear them in a musical about the Hilton Sisters, conjoined twins who took a cultural journey as strange as John Merrick’s. Director Bill Condon (of the Dreamgirls film, plus the Oscar-winning Gods and Monsters and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn) artfully revised a grim tale into something resembling the past-haunted Follies, and concluded the show with a stunning tableau that perfectly recreated Freaks (1932), which gave the sisters an abortive berth in Hollywood. Erin Davie and Emily Padgett gave it their all as the quite different siblings; I was fortunate to catch their stirring performance of “I Will Never Leave You” on The View on Friday, and judging by their tears they are truly unhappy to be vacating the St. James so soon.