Is Broadway acquiring a certain "carny" cast these days? I only ask because The Elephant Man, which arrived Dec. 7 at the Booth, is the second show in a row to explore the humanity of Nature's malformed. Following Side Show's conjoined sister-act is this tale of John Merrick, whose grotesqueness supposedly resulted from his mother being sideswiped by an elephant when she was pregnant with him.
This third go-around of Bernard Pomerance's historical 1979 Tony winner stars People magazine's Sexiest Man Alive of 2011 — but not so you'd really notice here.
The play's conceit is to start out with Body Beautiful (which would be Bradley Cooper in period-appropriate Victorian underwear). Then, as his doctor, Frederick Treves (Alessandro Nivola), delivers an explicit anatomy lecture — replete with a slide show of the real Merrick — Cooper distorts his face and body accordingly.
It's a stunning theatrical feat. Those who've brought it off before (Philip Anglim and Billy Crudup) shuffled away with Tony nominations, as likely will Cooper, who has only heretofore been up for Oscars ("Silver Linings Playbook," "American Hustle"). Pomerance's drama spans the last four of Merrick's 27 years when Dr. Treves rescued him from workhouse horrors and freak-show humiliation and placed him under his protection in London Hospital. From there, he flourished bizarrely and became a darling of high society, largely through the attention and influence of Mrs. [Madge] Kendal (Patricia Clarkson), a prominent actress of the day skilled at concealing her true feelings but, as it turns out, just as skilled at revealing them.
At the Gotham after-party, Cooper seemed a bit blessed out, wearing the unmistakable glow of somebody who'd scored on a long-standing passion. He had.
"I've been aware of this character my whole life, ever since I was 12," he said. "I acted him for a thesis in grad school 14 years ago, and then I did it at Williamstown two years ago, so I've had a long journey with this guy. I got to grow up with him, and, as I got older, he changed. It has been very unique for me in that way."
John Hurt's heart-wrenching, Oscar-nominated portrayal of Merrick, emoting through a mound of prosthetics to touch the heart, convinced the teenage Cooper that the actor's life was for him, but he was open to presenting the play's Merrick.
"Bernard wrote a character much different from what was presented in the movie. I got to know the guy himself through research, so it's about just infusing the guy that I've gotten to know doing through research into the words that Bernard wrote. It's all there. Good writing is open to interpretation. There are so many ways you can go with those scenes, and some nights it changes. I thank Bernard for that."
Ironically, Pomerance had nothing to do with the movie that inspired Cooper to become an actor. The screenplay by Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren and director David Lynch was based on Treves' book, "The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences" and, in part, on Ashley Montagu's book, "The Elephant Man: A Study in Human Dignity." Sidestepping the play altogether, Mel Brooks' Brooksfilms went the public-domain route instead. It's still a sore subject with Promerance, but he doesn't linger over it. "That was 30 years ago [34, actually]. I urge you to let it go."
Has Broadway changed for Cooper since his debut here with Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd in Three Days of Rain? "In every way. I'm eight years older, and I've gone through a lot more. It's a different theatre, smaller than the Jacobs. I love the Booth for this play. It was the only one to do it in — either that or nothing. We got lucky." His preference for the Booth is two-fold: "Its intimacy, and the fact that the play was originally done there. David Bowie did it there, and Philip Anglim and Mark Hamill."
It also looks right to him because he has visited the actual locale of the play in London. "The truth is I love the fact that it's a corner. It's almost like a free-standing, single-door entrance as opposed to the other theatres so it almost feels like you're walking across Whitechapel Road across from London Hospital like Treves did and you go through a single door. We hope the theatre-going experience starts as you go into the theatre. See? That's kinda why we fell in love with it."
Nivola is equally bullish about the Booth. "I like this play because it's intimate," he said. "It's a Broadway show and it has big stars and all that kind of thing, but it's really designed to play like a kitchen-sink drama and work on a very small scale, and we chose the smallest theatre on Broadway, which has always been my favorite — the Booth. I've always just loved it. It feels like we're trying to be real."
Despite the elephant in the room, the play is really the doctor's. "Treves goes through pretty much as extreme a character transformation as you could find in a play, really," Nivola contended. "He begins the play with total certainty and self-confidence and faith in the ability of the late 19th century British culture to educate and uplift both its own and people around the world. He ends the play completely disillusioned and full of self-loathing. Really, he has a nervous breakdown."
In the doctor-patient relationship, he detected distant echoes of Equus. "It was written at the same time, with a lot of the same themes and psychological elements."
The most glamorous blonde at the party, bar none, was Clarkson, who impresses in Carole Shelley's Tony-winning role of Mrs. Kendal, a theatrical, compassionate woman. Believe it or not, it's Clarkson's first Broadway role since 1989's Eastern Standard. "I know, but I'm coming back," she said contritely like a naughty little girl. Considering how high her profile is, she deserves the Broadway — Who-Needs-You? Tony, but she's not proud of her absence. "I'm honored to be on that stage with gorgeous Bradley and Alessandro. My highest praise is always saved for people who do work in the theatre. It's the hardest work you'll ever do. It'll kick your butt."
Anthony Heald is making something of a Broadway comeback himself, his first appearance on the Main Stem in almost 20 years. He put in ten seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and was last seen locally two and a half years ago in A Midsummer Night's Dream, opposite Bebe Neuwirth, at the Classic Stage Company.
He has two roles to sink his teeth into here: the seedy, selfish manager who exploits Merrick and a bishop who tends and comforts him. "I like that they're so different," Heald said of his Jekyll-and-Hyde selections. "I like that they're the light and the dark. I like that one is selling bodies and the other is saving souls. And I like, in each act, I get to go back and forth. It's a wonderful opportunity for an actor."
The manager he plays is painted in a much darker shade than the facts would have it. "The truth about Merrick's involvement with managers is somewhat different than in the play," he said. "Merrick, historically, had a number of managers, and they treated him quite well. But that doesn't work for the purposes of the play, and, like Shakespeare, Pomerance uses what works and gets rid of what doesn't."
Henry Stram carves up a couple of roles, too — one an upper-class hospital administrator, the other a low-brow Cockney. "It's an absolute joy to get to do this again after doing it at Williamstown two years ago," he admitted. "I think that there are four new people. The rest stayed with the show. We only had two and a half weeks of rehearsal and 14 performances at Williamstown — that's really fast — so it's been incredible to come back and really dig into it again. And it's so nice to be a part of something that people genuinely take to their hearts like they seem to with this."
Scott Ellis, who helmed the Williamstown production, repeats the chore here and credits Cooper as the show's prime mover. "Bradley's the one who brought up doing The Elephant Man. We talked about it, and I said, ‘OK, let's go do it — but intimately.'"
Right now Ellis is the only director on Broadway who has two shows on Broadway that have done more than 90% capacity (You Can't Take It With You and The Elephant Man). It was a compliment he waved away. "You know what? Here's the deal: It goes if it goes, and next year I might not be doing anything, so you just enjoy what you get."
The first-nighters who came two-by-two were starry clusters: John Krasinski and Emily Blunt, Jon Hamm and Jennifer Westfeldt, Marin Mazzie and Martin Moran, Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne, and Bryan Batt and Tom Cianfichi.
"Chianfichi means, loosely, Champion Fig Grower," Batt supplied helpfully. He was in attendance for Clarkson, a childhood friend from New Orleans. "We've been married for three years now — no, I'm kidding, but she was there when Tom and I married."
Batt, too, is shocked by Clarkson's longtime absence from the Main Stem, "but she hasn't done too poorly in the meantime. Some actors just know how to do it all. It comes from the same place and the same training, just knowing what level to have it come out — you know, how big for the camera? how big for the stage?"
Alyssa Milano counted herself in the Cooper camp: "I'm good friends with Bradley so I know how important this night is for him, and I wanted to come out in support."
Ditto James Lipton: "Bradley was the first of our students to come back to 'Inside Actors Studio.' I was his dean." Topping that: Dr. Andrew Skotnicki, his Georgetown teacher who got him the Actors Studio audition and even drove him there.
Also: John Leguizamo, Mary-Louise Parker, Edward Norton, John Lithgow (filling up his Delicate Balance dark night), Hilary Duff, Ruth Wilson (a Brit about to make her Broadway bow, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, in Constellations — "it all goes tech on Wednesday"), Natalie Morales, Danny Masterson and Anna Wintour.