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A CurtainUp Review: The Elephant Man

by Les Gutman

...sometimes I think my head is so big
because it is so full of dreams.
--- Merrick, Scene X

Timothy McCracken
(Photo: Paula Court)
Someday, perhaps someone will write a play about Bernard Pomerance. Born in Brooklyn, he (like many others) had to move to London to make a name for himself in the theater. But when he returned in 1979, New York greeted him with all of the theatrical laurels at its disposal. His Elephant Man basked in its glory and ran at the Booth for well over two years. (The story was made into a well-regarded film the following year, albeit not based on the play.) He wrote several other plays, before and after, but none have found their way to America. 

What is it that draws us to this Victorian story of the severely deformed John Merrick (Timothy McCracken) and the young physician, Frederick Treves (Tony Ward), who rescues him from the degrading world of freak shows, ensconces him in London Hospital and elevates him into the prize of high society? Pomerance's play is elegantly layered and poetic, but it is not so much in his metaphors and ironies that he captures us, nor in his play for our "self-righteous piety," as Frank Rich once claimed. Pomerance also takes pains to make sure we are not ourselves attracted to a freak show. The best answer seems to be the one addressed most squarely in the first scene after the intermission, entitled "Who Does He Remind You Of?" 

That answer, of course, is ourselves. The most appealing plays are the ones that act like mirrors. This, The Elephant Man achieves because, surface sympathies notwithstanding, it does not pass judgments. The search for what is good, and normal, is universally slippery and perilous. False pieties can gain no foothold. 

David Travis's staging rightly centers itself on its two principal performances. Representing Merrick onstage is never a matter of special effects. To create him naturalistically, Pomerance insists, would divert from the storytelling. McCracken makes an exceptional effort to give us reminders of Merrick's condition -- a palsied mouth, a limp, a contorted trunk -- without overwhelming us. Merrick comes across as sensitive, wise and endearing. His most devastating observations are allowed to float like storm clouds. If I have a quibble, it is that he's sometimes a bit too polished to reveal the full measure of his anguish, and the characterization is thus less gripping than it might be. 

The elegant, studied sense of Victorian propriety that informs Tony Ward's version of Treves produces a more compelling portrait, as his bedrock certainties are dismantled. The remainder of the cast delivers with mixed success. Jamie Jones is especially good as Mrs. Kendal, the actress drawn by Treves into service as a social worker in the most literal sense. She's bursting with energy and acquits the play's comic highlights nicely. She's also quite good as one of the three wacky "pinheads" -- as are the other two, Nina Hellman (who also does a nice bit as a nurse who lets Treves down) and Hillary Keegin. Of the men, Angus Hepburn begins a bit too formally as as the hospital administrator, but becomes an important representation as he interacts with Treves throughout the work. The rest of the men spend too much time on ineffective accents, sometimes making them difficult to understand, and end up more as caricatures than characters.

I was quite taken with Adrian Jones's set when I first saw it. It evokes a Victorian hospital quite well, and relies on a metal-framed cube surrounded by curtains and a translucent wall that can be raised and lowered to suggest other spaces. As the action progresses however (the play moves quickly through twenty quite different scenes), this arrangement (augmented by a white curtain drawn manually back and forth across the stage) becomes more of an impediment than an aid, and Director David Travis seems unable to maintain the pacing as scenes are (noisily) shifted. I've admired Mr. Travis's work before, but this time he never quite gets a firm enough grip. The other design elements are all quite fine; Ken Travis's sound effects are particularly notable.   
by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by David Travis

with Tony Ward, Angus Hepburn, David Caton, Timothy McCracken, Glenn Peters, Jeff Burchfield, Jamie Jones, Nina Hellman and Hillary Keegin
Set Design: Adrian W. Jones
Costume Design: Miguel Angel Huidor
Lighting Design: Alistair Wandesforde-Smith
Sound Design: Ken Travis
Running time: 2 hours with one intermission 
Connelly Theatre, 220 East 4th Street (Avs. A/B) (212) 358-5123
Opened 10/11/2000 closes 10/29/2000
Reviewed by Les Gutman 10/12 based on 10/9 performance

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