NEW YORK - As guests go, in the megastar-driven dinner party that Broadway has become, Bradley Cooper makes for respectful, well-disciplined company. That he's not the exhilarating life of that party may be a function of the limits of his technique, but more likely, of the various constraints he's under in the tepid revival of "The Elephant Man" that had its official opening Sunday night at the Booth Theatre.
Cooper, who has established himself of late as a magnetic force in movies, via roles in "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle," is described as having long been devoted to Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play and the story of John Merrick, whose catastrophically disfiguring illness turned him into a sideshow sensation in Victorian London. The actor's singular affection for the role is the animating emotion on this evening, which otherwise unfolds the trials of Merrick and the moral anguish of a doctor-rescuer, played by Alessandro Nivola, with an extreme reverence that dries it out. The production bottles all the pulse-quickening energy of an afternoon in a library reference section.
The play, which on Broadway originally starred Philip Anglim as Merrick and later was revived with Billy Crudup, catalogs the abuses heaped on Merrick by a cruel carnival hustler (Anthony Heald) and later, the kindnesses conferred by a leading London actress (Patricia Clarkson), who enlists the city's swells in his cause and care. Pomerance reveals here the easy interchangeability of revulsion and empathy in the beholder's eye, and how both reactions say more about us and the world we live in than about the plight of the afflicted. The compassionate sophisticates, it seems, intuit no more about the essence of the man than do the gawkers. (Nivola has the most success conveying the contradictions.)
Unlike the superior 1980 movie, directed by David Lynch and starring John Hurt in elaborate prosthetics, the actors of Pomerance's devising portray Merrick in all their own handsomeness. Cooper convincingly contorts his frame, in the manner of all the good-looking Merricks of the stage. He also capably communicates Merrick's surprising wit. He's not as proficient, though, at the character's desolation: A scene in which Merrick breaks down in sobs, for instance, manifests only the most externalized portrait of despair.
Clarkson affects a peculiarly distracted air as the celebrated Mrs. Kendal; there's no discernible warmth in the performance, not even in the pivotal juncture when the actress, defying the age's severe social strictures, lifts for Merrick the mystery of the female form. The chill of that moment is symptomatic of a cold front that never relents.