While reading this generally favorable review of The Elephant Man, the revival of Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play -- at the Booth (where it first played) and brought in from the 2012 Williamstown Theatre Festival -- bear in mind that the title character (played extremely well by Bradley Cooper) isn't seen until after Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola, also extremely strong in his part) is introduced.
Treves is the surgeon who rescued the actual malformed Merrick from his dismal existence as a carnival attraction and gave the abused man a home at London Hospital for the last years of his short life (1862-1890). In Pomerance's script, the good doctor -- eventually accorded the title of baronet for his work -- joins the staff as a 31-year-old man happy with his status as a scientist and nonchalant when advised by his superior Carr Gomm (Henry Stram) that over time the positive attitude will likely be challenged.
I point this out simply because, by dint of calling his play The Elephant Man, Pomerance irrevocably establishes that Merrick is his focal figure and for much of the two acts deftly presents the character study of an unforgettable character -- not only to the audience but, of course, to the other figures populating the stage.
When Cooper (last on Broadway in the 2006 Three Days of Rain revival) is first seen as Merrick, he's stripped to tan shorts. He's standing tall, emotionless and fit as Treves discusses a photograph of the real Merrick naked and balefully grotesque when compared to the conventional male physique. (The photograph is one that Treves took of the real 24-year-old Merrick in 1886.)
With Treves pointing out specific deformities, Cooper slowly distorts his mouth, folds his right hand into a gnarled ball, turns his bare left foot in, hitches his right hip, begins limping and starts gasping for air. The transformation is mesmerizing and only begins to suggest how strong Cooper will continue to be in the constitutionally and emotionally demanding role.
What follows is the intelligent, unfailingly witty Merrick's education as engineered by Treves and abetted by famous actress Mrs. Kendall (Patricia Clarkson in another of her reliably top-drawer appearances). Mrs. Kendall not only knows everyone in and out of London society but rounds them up -- and that includes Princess Alexandra (Kathryn Meisle) -- to befriend her new associate. (Is she modeled on Alice Keppel, famous at the time as King Edward VII's mistress? Probably.)
In a series of scenes -- all directed by Scott Ellis with his usual command of ensemble playing (earlier this season. the wonderful You Can't Take It With You revival) -- Merrick's progress in tandem with his fleshly deterioration is depicted. Through the sequences, Cooper's sustained acting, particularly the high voice he affects, is the cause of the genuine affection he engenders for Merrick with all spectators on stage and in the audience.
Along these lines, Pomerance makes one of his insistent ancillary points in a scene where the high-born men and women who have taken Merrick up -- if only for their temporary pleasure -- each describes the new friend in terms very much like the terms in which they regard themselves. Pomerance is declaring that we like others in direct proportion to what we like about ourselves -- or wish we could find to like in ourselves. (This may be truer than any of us would like to admit.)
Throughout the play, two characters appear called Ross and Bishop How (both hardly incidentally played with aplomb by Anthony Heald). Ross is the hard-nosed carnival operator who exploited Merrick and from whom Treves purchases Merrick and who later returns, a broken man, to attempt to take advantage of his former employee's new status as potentially even bigger moneymaker. Bishop How is a spiritual leader, and thereby represents -- as opposed to Ross -- the uplifting religious life.
But as much as Bishop How figures in Merrick's transformation from sideshow draw to gentleman, he's also on hand as a counterbalance to Treves's promoting of science as the correct path to salvation. This is where Pomerance's dramatic focus comes into focus. Another way of saying as much is to say that this is where the playwright's focus becomes blurred.
Although by virtue of his shape Merrick commands the figurative spotlight (not literal, since lighting designer Philip S. Rosenberg eschews spotlights), he is a character whose situation is studied through to a sad finish. But as the play's opening indicates, it's Treves's arc with which Pomerance is actually concerned.
What he's writing about -- while Merrick holds the attention -- is the widespread belief during the Victorian era that science should replace religion as the prevailing force. With Treves -- whose worries about what will become of Merrick erode his faith in his calling -- Pomerance is making an argument for the need of reconciliation between science and religion. Treves's commitment to science, as Pomerance sees it, is spiritually insufficient.
Making the intention stick, though, is where Pomerance runs into trouble. Even though he tips the audience off at the drama's get-go that his primary concern is Treves, he doesn't follow through with enough information about the man. Early on, he talks about a wife and children, but they're never mentioned again. Pomerance even hints that Treves develops a thing for Mrs. Kendall, which explains why he's so short-tempered when he catches the actress appearing bare-breasted before Merrick.
Nevertheless, not enough of Treves gets into the script. Despite a late breakdown that Nivola plays effectively, the role of the doctor is underwritten. That it is is understandable with Merrick, not a participant is certain segments, remaining seated motionlessly in upstage shadows. But this is a drawback in a production where everything else -- Timothy R. Mackabee's spare set, Clint Ramos's costumes, John Gromada's original music and sound design -- is, in the highest British accolade, well done.
By the way, as Merrick improves mentally, if not physically, he takes up building models of churches (religion, again), and eventually completes a small-scale replica of St. Phillip's Church. (Its creator for this production goes uncredited. Is it Cooper himself in complete commitment to the role?) As it turns out, what looks like a near perfect rendering of the neo-Gothic edifice could be a metaphor for Ellis's elegant production.