New York Arts / Theater

The Elephant Man at the Williamstown Theatre Festival

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Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson in a scene from The Elephant Man.  Photo T Charles Erickson.
Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson in a scene from The Elephant Man. Photo T Charles Erickson.

The Elephant Man
by Bernard Pomerance
directed by Scott Ellis
Timothy Mackabee, Scenic and Projections Design
Clint Ramos, Costume Design
Philip Rosenberg, Lighting Design
Tom Kochan, Original Music/Co-Sound Design

Patricia Clarkson – Mrs. Kendal
Bradley Cooper – John Merrick
Shuler Hensley – Ross/Bishop How/Snork
Scott Lowell – Will/Lord John/Earl
Alessandro Nivola- Frederick Treves
Marguerite Stimpson – Sandwich/Countess/Alexandra
Henry Stram – Carr Gomm/Conductor

For several years now, one of the joys of the Williamstown Theatre Festival has been the revivals of obscure, but cherishable British plays of the 1960’s and 70’s, David Storey’s Home, for example or Simon Gray’s Quartermaine’s Terms, to name two examples. Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is a late (1979) product of the period, even if it is by no means obscure today, thanks mostly to David Lynch’s remarkable film (1980), and even if it was written by an American.

Scott Ellis, the director, has created a solid revival. The minimal sets and their intimate scale work very nicely for the close interaction of the characters. All the significant props, like Merrick’s meal trays and his church model, are prominently visible and make their point. The Victorian dresses of the upper class ladies, above all, Mrs. Kendal’s provide the only visual treats, beyond Ms. Clarkson herself. None of the actors are weak. Alessandro Nivola as Frederick Treves, the sympathetic surgeon, and Henry Stram as Carr Gomm, the hospital director, gave better than adequate performances, but not outstanding ones. To bring out the ironies and nuances of the situations of these intelligent characters, it takes a bit more flexibility and color than they were able to give. The performance was rather fast in pace, and perhaps that is to blame. Patricia Clarkson as the actress, Mrs Kendal, and Bradley Cooper as John Merrick, brought the production up a considerable way with truly memorable performances. Cooper brought a haunting vulnerability to his role, using a falsetto voice for many of his lines with impressive skill, and Clarkson brought her character fully to life, as few actors do, especially in her later scenes, when Mrs. Kendal’s theatrical affectations fall away. Her English vowels were not always perfectly right, but one forgot that soon enough. The trick of the play is that the role of the horribly disfigured Elephant Man is played by a normal actor, who must create the illusion of his appearance with attitude, movement, and voice.

The Achilles Heel of the evening was possibly the play itself, Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 stage adaptation of Ashley Montagu’s 1942 book, which may be on the point of showing its age. It is not without its preachy bits or points about civilization, morality, and hypocrisy which are presented in a heavy-handed way. As I remember, David Lynch and his screenwriters finessed them in favor of a treatment which concentrated on the characters as feeling, moral people and their relationships. Scott Ellis dealt with them by simply pushing along. Some details, notably the titled huckster who gathers investors, gambles away their money, and comes back for more, are eminently timely for us today, and Ellis didn’t let that slip through his hands. As moving as this story of the most unfortunate of people is, I can’t help feeling a bit uncomfortable with its sensationalistic aspects, which are even self-criticized in the play, and well-seasoned with a bit of titillation and odd sex. However, Pomerance never lets us forget the high-mindedness of his intentions.

An absorbing evening of theater, nonetheless, and by all means see it, if you can get a ticket.

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