NEW YORK – Bradley Cooper is probably best known for his films; his most recent, “American Sniper,” won him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He is currently giving a stunning stage performance in a revival of Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play “The Elephant Man,” about the Victorian John Merrick, whose life was plagued by an “elephant-like” disfigurement. The play is at the Booth Theater on West 45th Street through Feb. 22.
We first meet Mr. Cooper standing on stage right. Dr. Treves, the hospital administrator, played by the striking actor Alessandro Nivola, who has rescued Mr. Merrick from a horrendous carnival life as a tuppence freak attraction, has found him a place at the London Hospital in Whitechapel.
Dr. Treves begins to describe the maladies of Mr. Merrick’s body in a lecture-style fashion. The real Dr. Treves took photographs of Mr. Merrick, and these are projected in the background. The most striking feature the doctor points out is his enormous head; its circumference is about the size of a man’s waist.
As Dr. Teves talks about Mr. Merrick’s infirmities, Mr. Cooper’s normal body slowly turns into the malformed Mr. Merrick. His body twists, his stance changes and even his speech becomes distorted. This is how Mr. Cooper plays Mr. Merrick for the rest of the evening.
Mr. Pomerance’s play is written as a sort of dramatic documentary of Mr. Merrick’s life. Mr. Merrick was a real person who was born in 1862 in Leicester, England, as Joseph Carey Merrick (the doctor misunderstood the name Joseph and wrote it down as John). His mother had placed him at age 3 in the Leicester workhouse because she couldn’t bear the sight of him.
Mr. Pomerance’s play is written in tight scenes, almost like a classical music piece. As the play progresses, we begin to see the real Mr. Merrick who has been buried under the deformity. His intelligence and emotions start to emerge. At the hospital, he becomes a person and a personality. Dr. Treves thinks Mr. Merrick might be supported for the rest of his life by a donor without a penny spent from hospital funds. But Mr. Merrick does say at one point that he would feel more at home with the blind where no one would be continuously staring at him.
Dr. Treves desires a “normalcy” for Mr. Merrick, a normal life that should include women. He tries out a nursing prospect, Miss Sandwich (Kathryn Meisle), but the sight of Mr. Merrick repels her. Then Dr. Treves thinks of actress Mrs. Kendal (a beautifully etched performance by Patricia Clarkson), who might be able to hide her revulsion. Mrs. Kendal is an invention of Mr. Pomerance. The idea works. The two form a friendship and talk about all sorts of things, such as Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” (Mr. Merrick doesn’t think that Romeo feels that much for Juliet.)
She admires the architectural model he’s making of St. Phillip’s Church with the one hand that still functions. Mrs. Kendal looks at it carefully and declares: “Mr. Merrick is an artist.” The hoity-toity of London all come to call on him, including Princess Alexandra. Even the Prince of Wales sends him delicacies.
Scott Ellis stages the production simply and concentrates mostly on the three main characters. The dramatic pace of the play flows smoothly and swiftly and, in the end, the effect is profoundly moving.
Timothy R. Mackabee’s austere set, with period costumes by Clint Ramis and appropriate Victorian lighting by Philip S. Rosenberg, all accentuate the 19th-century milieu.
Mr. Cooper fell in love with “The Elephant Man” when he was 12 and saw the black and white film that was produced by Mel Brooks, was directed by David Lynch, and that starred John Hurt, now Sir John Hurt. The film was not an adaptation of the play, but used the title and much of the content of the play. The film’s production company was successfully sued by Mr. Pomerance.
Mr. Cooper was born 40 years ago in Philadelphia to an Irish father and Italian mother. He majored in English at Georgetown and attended the Actors Studio at the New School in New York. That’s where he found out about Bernard Pomerance’s “Elephant Man” play, became obsessed with it and used it as his master’s thesis.
Two summers ago, he put this production together at the Williamstown Playhouse in Massachusetts, and it was such a success there that this Broadway run was scheduled. Mr. Cooper’s Broadway performance will travel to London this summer.
Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.