Monday, December 15, 2014

The Elephant Man: A Museum Display

I wish I had just bought dinner at a table next to Alessandro Nivola rather than payed a small fortune to see this play.  At least in that instance I'd have had a really nice meal and probably enjoyed overhearing enough of Nivola to make it dinner and a show.  Sadly, the Scott Ellis revival of the Bernard Pomerance play currently playing on Broadway is a lifeless body propped up on display.  I place blame at Ellis's feet.

After a life of freak-shows and abuse, John Merrick (Bradley Cooper) is rescued by Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola) and given a home at London Hospital.  With time and tutelage he becomes a voracious reader and Treves discovers a social butterfly behind Merrick's deformed features.  With the assistance of stage star Mrs. Kendal (Patricia Clarkson) he is introduced to many people in high society including royalty. But he remains cut off from the world in other ways. As certain doors open to him we see the limits of his access. His health begins to suffer but it is Treves who starts to wonder if he's made a mistake by trying to give Merrick a "normal"life.

I will say up front that everyone did their homework here. Bradley Cooper contorted himself. Patricia Clarkson fluttered.  Alessandro Nivola suffered admirably. But the entire endeavor felt like everyone was sitting for a painting and not acting in a play.  Pose. Speak. Exeunt. There was something so utterly turgid in the goings on. Sure it's a period piece and there are corsets and stiff-upper lip Brits but God almighty did there also need to be rods up everyone's asses. Like porcelain dolls on display this production came across like a waxworks museum but not a full-blooded play. And there are some worthwhile emotions to be mined here. Of all the performers Nivola is the only one who managed to express them. 

Putting aside the terrible British accents and a set entirely consisting of curtains, I could not recall what made this play so electric when I saw it 20 years ago--oh yeah I do, it was Billy Crudup. He managed to craft a fully-developed character and make himself vulnerable. Cooper does not embarrass himself here but I kept waiting for something more than a blank look on his face.  He was so focused on his contortions and his accent (which was very good through a contorted mouth so A++ on that) that I didn't feel like much else was happening.  At intermission enough people were raving about his blue eyes that I guess it didn't matter to anyone else. They had all come to fawn and felt it money well spent to see their "favorite" actor act.   I'm no fangirl for Mr. Cooper but I was excited to see an actor who I had heard had done a great job try out this challenging role. And he carries the physical challenges of the role admirably. But it just felt empty.  He remained a cypher. And the mechanics alone are not why one shows up for this show.  The emotional core really needs to be there.

I was unexpectedly disappointed in Patricia Clarkson. I have loved her in so many movies but here she just seemed out of her element. Her accent came and went and her most critical scene, where she makes herself most vulnerable to Merrick, neither of them seemed to really express the true devastation of it. It was all whimper and no bang.

Nivola however continues to turn in strong roles without a lot of fanfare. Coming after The Winslow Boy last season I hope he decides to keep doing theater. His argument with Merrick in the aftermath of Mrs. Kendal's departure really got under the skin of his character and he got to show a lot of layers.  He's feeling everything when no one else around him is.  It starts to feel like a weird episode of the Twilight Zone where everyone else is a robot and he's just figured out he's the only human.   I was grateful to have him.But one man cannot carry this show alone. 

Maybe this minimalism and curtain-based theatricality worked on the small stage in Williamstown but here I just felt the large swaths of emptiness. Then again after seeing this production I started to think this play, as performed, did not have enough to sustain itself even for two hours. 

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