TIME Theater

Review: The Elephant Man: Bradley Cooper’s Broadway Freak Show

From left: Anthony Heald, Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call for 'The Elephant Man' on Dec. 7, 2014 in New York City.
From left: Anthony Heald, Bradley Cooper and Patricia Clarkson during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call for 'The Elephant Man' on Dec. 7, 2014 in New York City. Walter McBride—Getty Images/WireImage

In The Elephant Man, People's Sexiest Man Alive has found an ideal stage vehicle

Anyone attending the new Broadway revival of The Elephant Man might get the idea that, for most theatergoers, the real show doesn’t begin until after the final curtain. That’s when an excited crowd of fans gathers outside the stage door, waiting for star Bradley Cooper to make his appearance.

I had, by chance, a front row seat for the post-show frenzy after one recent performance —at one of the tables in Junior’s, the deli restaurant right next door to the Booth Theater. What amazed me wasn’t just the press of flesh and flashbulbs outside, waiting for the hunky Hollywood star to emerge. It was the crowd that had gathered inside the restaurant: patrons interrupting their corned beef sandwiches to gawk through the windows and point their cellphones — taking photos of the crowd taking photos of the star who was all but invisible behind the horde of autograph-seeking fans.

It seemed a fitting coda for a year in which Broadway’s parade of star power hit an all-time peak. Neil Patrick Harris, Bryan Cranston, Michael Cera, Hugh Jackman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and (most recently, as the new Sally Bowles in Cabaret) Emma Stone were just some of the TV and movie stars who made their debuts, or high-profile returns, on Broadway this year. In most cases, they were headlining revivals — and not always of plays that needed reviving. This is the third Broadway production of The Elephant Man (the last was in 2002), and it surely wouldn’t be back if Bradley Cooper — People’s former Sexiest Man Alive, star of Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and The Hangover films — didn’t think it would be a good career move.

It’s easy to see why. In the role of John Merrick, the hideously deformed man who was transformed from a circus freak into the toast of Victorian London, Cooper has a near-perfect, high-impact showcase in which to demonstrate his stage chops. The main gimmick of Bernard Pomerance’s 1979 fact-based drama is that the grotesque title character is portrayed by a perfectly normal-looking actor, without makeup or prosthetics, who simply manipulates his body and voice to simulate the deformities that revolt (and later fascinate) all who meet him.

Cooper’s sheer physical gorgeousness makes the transformation a surefire crowd pleaser. Watch him twist his face and contort his buffed-up body into a lopsided hump. Listen to the gurgles and clicking sounds as he gasps out his words in a strangled, high-pitched wail. The standing ovation is assured; a Tony nomination nearly so.

I don’t mean to denigrate Cooper’s performance, which is impressive and often touching. So is Pomerance’s play, with its canny mixture of historical drama, moral inquiry and social satire. Merrick is rescued from his freak-show horrors by the kindly Dr. Frederick Treves and introduced to a patronizing gallery of Victorian swells, who simply transfer the freak show to well-appointed drawing rooms. Scott Elliott’s production junks the Brechtian intertitles in Pomerance’s script, which added a nice layer of irony to the proceedings, and as a result the play becomes a little more of a heart-tugger than it probably ought to be. But tug at the heart it does.

Cooper is helped quite a bit by an excellent supporting cast, especially Alessandro Nivola, who neatly walks the line between sympathy and smugness as the doctor, and Patricia Clarkson, a bit brittle but engaging as the actress who becomes Merrick’s friend and patron. It is an intelligent, thought-provoking, briskly paced evening of theater, over in a surprisingly fast two hours. Plenty of time left to grab your cellphone, join the stage-door scrum — and still have time for slice of Junior’s cheesecake.

TIME Theater

REVIEW: Sting’s The Last Ship Is Rudderless

"The Last Ship" Broadway Opening Night - Arrivals And Curtain Call
Sting with the cast during the Broadway Opening Night Performance Curtain Call for 'The Last Ship' at the Neil Simon Theatre on Oct. 26, 2014 in New York City. Walter McBride—WireImage

Even though his tunes are exceptional, the Broadway version of his song cycle is lost at sea

The Last Ship, the first Broadway musical from rock star Sting, has plenty going for it. The story, about the workers in an English seafaring town who occupy their recently closed shipyard to build one last vessel, has a lot of working-class authenticity and autobiographical cred — based, as it is, on Sting’s own experiences growing up in the northeast England port city of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Sting has written some excellent, evocative songs — many of them delivered by a brawny, foot-stomping baritone chorus, with earthy, less-is-more choreography by the talented Steven Hoggett. The Broadway production, directed by Joe Mantello, is polished and well cast, serious and occasionally stirring.

All that’s missing is the ship.

It’s probably unfair to point out that a stage musical can’t capture the realism of a movie. But The Last Ship is so reminiscent of those British indie films about gritty working-class folks in dreary north-country industrial towns — some of which have been turned into decent musicals (Billy Elliot, The Full Monty) — that you can’t help feeling something is missing. This may be the first Broadway musical that pales in comparison to the movie it wasn’t based on.

The story is a fond tribute to the proud English shipbuilders who were thrown out of work by globalism, Thatcherism and the sheer march of progress. Yet the show doesn’t have much social-political context, nor dramatic tension. The decision to close the shipyard is made at the very start, and the confrontation between management and labor is muted and pretty much forgotten midway through. It’s not even clear just what this quixotic project is meant to accomplish, beyond a symbolic demonstration of the men’s work ethic and skills that are no longer in demand.

On screen, the sight of the ship gradually coming into hulking being would have provided a concrete focus for the drama, or at least a sense of forward motion toward a visible, if ultimately futile, conclusion. Here, the whole project takes place offstage, and no one has come up with a visual metaphor or imaginative staging idea to represent it in theatrical terms.

Instead, the book (by Brian Yorkey and John Logan) fills out the two and a half hours with a boilerplate story about a prodigal son, Gideon (Michael Esper), who returns home after a 15-year absence, the girlfriend (Rachel Tucker) he left behind, and the son (Collin Kelly-Sordelet) she has raised and who turns out, naturally, to be Gideon’s. There’s a standard collection of colorful locals and gruff working men (among them the lean and weathered Jimmy Nail as the foreman who leads the construction project), as well as a kind-hearted, cutely profane parish priest (Fred Applegate) straight from central casting — for some Irish film, apparently.

The show’s uncontrovertible high point is Sting’s vigorous and lyrical score — maybe the best from a major rock artist to come to Broadway. (Bono and The Edge’s songs for Spider-Man, in comparison, sound slick and inconsequential). There are yearning, romantic love ballads; hearty workers’ anthems with echoes of sea chanteys, Irish folk music and The Threepenny Opera;and a touch of Broadway pizzazz, to keep the old folks who predate the Police happy.

Yet the score is not really enhanced by the show surrounding it. A concert version of songs from The Last Ship (including several that were cut from the show) that Sting delivered at New York’s Public Theatre last year is actually more powerful, personal and genuinely moving than the fully staged musical. PBS aired it on Great Performances early this year (http://video.pbs.org/video/2365183664); give a listen to a terrific song cycle that, unfortunately, falls a little short as a Broadway show.

TIME Theater

It’s Only a Play on Broadway: Inside Job

It’s Only a PlayGerald Schoenfeld Theatre
©2014 Joan Marcus

Terrence McNally's '80s comedy has been updated, but the laughs still seem tired

It seems ungracious be too harsh on It’s Only a Play — the revival of Terrence McNally’s 1986 comedy that has just opened on Broadway. McNally, a New York theater mainstay who once wrote funny plays (Bad Habits, Next) before winning Tonys for Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class, concocted the work as a frothy send-up of Broadway, packed with inside jokes, topical references and catty theater-world wisecracks. For the new revival, the references and in-jokes have been updated (from Charles Nelson Reilly and Arlene Francis to Harvey Fierstein and Kelly Ripa). The new production, moreover, has attracted the most star-studded cast of the Broadway season, headed by Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, together again for the third time (after The Producers and the 2005 revival of The Odd Couple). The jokes are nonstop, most of them get big laughs, and the standing ovation starts almost before the curtain can drop.

But holy David Merrick — what a mess. We’re at the opening night party of a new Broadway show, written by a celebrated but insecure playwright (Broderick) and attended by his good friend (Lane), an actor now doing sitcoms in Hollywood. The room quickly fills with the Broadway equivalent of the bomber crew from an old World War II movie. There’s the show’s rich but clueless producer (Megan Mullally); its eccentric, critically acclaimed British director (Rupert Grint); an alcoholic, over-the-hill leading lady (Stockard Channing); a pompous theater critic (F. Murray Abraham) who, for some inexplicable reason, is hanging out for the evening with the people whose show he is about to trash; and an eager young coat-check attendant (Micah Stock) who is entranced by the whole scene.

I wasn’t. The jokes may be updated, but the satiric targets seem awfully familiar: the influx of British shows, actors who leave the theater to do bad television, critics who secretly want to write plays, and anybody who lives outside the Big Apple. (“New York without the theater is… Newark.”) No joke is too lame that it can’t be repeated a half-dozen times (a character named Wicker mistakenly called Wacker) and flogged mercilessly. Any decent sitcom writer could have boiled the thing down to a passable 60 minutes, but at two bloated acts, the show is both self-indulgent and interminable.

There is no plot, just the ginned-up suspense of waiting for the reviews to come out. In the ’80s, the New York TV stations all had Broadway reviewers, and the wait at least made some real-time dramatic sense. Now the TV critics are gone, and so characters are forced, awkwardly, to simply repeat the print reviews as they’re read to them over the telephone. The New York Times’ Ben Brantley is name-checked so often that he should be getting Equity scale for the show. (Brantley was sitting two rows in front of me at the preview performance I saw, and seemed to be a good sport about it.)

As for the starry cast, it’s a decidedly mixed bag. Lane is his usual vibrant, ingratiating self, milking every laugh with his rubbery eyebrows and crack comic timing. Channing is fine as the drunk diva, and Abraham, that old pro, does the best he can with the patently ridiculous part of the critic. But Rupert Grint (of Harry Potter fame), dressed in a garishly patterned three-piece suit, looks like a refugee from Carnaby Street in the 1960s, not a parody of the grunge-chic British esthetic of today. Mullally’s spaced-out, vaguely southern producer is grating from start to finish. As for Broderick — well, his monotonous, winsome, sing-songy acting style has become something akin to kabuki theater. Any resemblance to an actual living person is purely coincidental.

Yes, it’s only a play, and a sellout hit besides. But for Broadway audiences — at least the ones who don’t attend Terrence McNally’s opening-night parties — it’s only a trifle.

TIME Theater

Broadway Mind Games: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Theater-Curious Incident of the Dog
This image released by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows the cast during a performance of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," in London. Brinkhoff-Moegenburg—AP

A dead dog, an autistic genius and an extraordinary play from London

“Don’t you ever think about other people for one second?” a character demands of Christopher Boone, the 15-year-old protagonist of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The line, which comes late in the play, would be funny if it weren’t so tragically dense.

Christopher, inside whose world we are thrust in Simon Stephens’ extraordinary play, is autistic. He is unable to have normal social interactions or to handle stimuli from the outside that upset his familiar, carefully ordered reality. He avoids eye contact. A mere touch sends him into hysterics. He takes words literally and cannot process new and complicated information — unless it relates to numbers, at which he is something of a genius. The diagnosis today would be Asperger’s disorder, though neither that term nor the word “autism” is ever spoken in the play.

One of the achievements of this stage adaptation of the bestselling 2003 novel by Mark Haddon is that it is a play about a disabled teenager that totally avoids medical explanations, or conventional, courage-in-the-face-of-illness sentimentality. The play, which has just opened on Broadway after acclaimed runs at London’s National Theatre and on the West End, is part mystery story, part family drama, part young-adult adventure tale. But mostly it’s a demonstration of the power of theater to transport us to exotic places, none more exotic than the inside workings of a discombobulated human mind.

Like such previous British stage triumphs as War Horse and Matilda: The Musical, the play seems to have been imagined in entirely fresh, wonderfully utilitarian theatrical terms. The set is a black box of cross-hatched graph paper — the grid of Christopher’s rigid but wildly disconnected mind, Director Marianne Elliott (who was also the mastermind behind War Horse) orchestrates a dazzling array of sound and light effects, video projections and choreographed movement by a group of actors who remain onstage at all times — alternately handling props, helping animate scenes by impersonating kitchen appliances and other household objects, and playing all the people in Christopher’s life.

The plot is minimal. The dog of the title appears in the play’s first startling, flashbulb-lit image — dead on a neighbor’s lawn, gruesomely impaled by a pitchfork. Christopher, though first suspected of the crime, sets out to solve it, in his obsessive, rigidly logical manner. In the process he discovers deeper secrets about his family — the gruff but caring father (Ian Barford) with whom he lives, and a mother (Enid Graham) from whom he has been parted for years.

In lieu of the novel’s first-person narrative, the play tells much of the story through Christopher’s own writing — a story he has presumably written, read aloud in snatches by his teacher (Francesca Faridany). But his point of view is most vividly conveyed by the inventive, subjective staging. Christopher’s trip to London, alone for the first time in a bewildering environment, is a particularly harrowing sensory assault — a cacophany of signs, voices, heedless crowds, hurtling subway trains, an escalator that appears out of thin air. But it’s more than just a sound-and-light show: a pantomimed sequence in which Christopher tries to negotiate a commuter-train bathroom is a tiny masterpiece of wordless, detailed theater-verite.

Alex Sharp, a recent Julliard graduate who is making his Broadway debut, is stunningly good as Christopher. He does wonders with his eyes — squinting as if shying away from the light one minute, wide-eyed with wonder the next, never really focusing but always sharpening our focus on his disoriented mind. Every single cast member — all Americans, though you wouldn’t guess it — forms an indispensable piece of the seamless whole. The Curious Incident is a real Broadway curiosity, a play that works on every level — crowd-pleasing, eye-opening, life-affirming and unmissable.

TIME Theater

Review: Crown Jewel: King Charles III in London

Britain King Charles III
Matt Dunham—AP

Mike Bartlett's brilliant new play imagines what happens when Prince Charles finally becomes king

I made a theatergoing trip to London recently, and my main target of opportunity was King Charles III — Mike Bartlett’s “future history play” about the ascension of Prince Charles to the throne, which has just opened on the West End after a buzzed-about run last spring at the Almeida Theatre. By chance, I saw the play on the night before the vote on Scottish independence — the momentous referendum that dominated the headlines and flooded the TV airwaves like no other political event in recent British history.

The confluence seemed perfectly fitting. For years, British plays have been far more engaged in the public arena — dramatizing current events, commenting on political issues and public figures — than their American counterparts. (Another hot ticket in London right now is Great Britain, Richard Bean’s fictionalized account of the British tabloid hacking scandals.) King Charles III isn’t just an up-to-the-minute political drama, as timely and relevant as the daily headlines. It often seems just another extension of them. A brief reference in the play to the inviolable British union even had to be tweaked slightly when “Scotland” was mentioned — not an easy thing to do with a play written in blank verse.

King Charles III‘s subject may be au-courant, but its form is self-consciously Shakespearean. The dialogue is delivered almost entirely in stately, yet surprisingly fluid, iambic pentameter, with modern slang (“You’re f—— joking”) sitting comfortably next to eloquent soliloquys and direct-to-the-audience exposition, and echoes of everything from Henry IV to Macbeth. There’s even the ghost of Princess Diana — played, miraculously, not for laughs.

Indeed, the remarkable thing about King Charles III is its rigorous seriousness. The play revolves around real-life people who have been caricatured endlessly in the gossip press, and yet it turns them into nuanced, flesh-and-blood human beings. It posits a future political scenario, but never slips off the rails into apocalyptic fantasy or cheap satire. It is a gripping evening of theater, a rare contemporary play with real tragic vision, and easily the sharpest, most sophisticated political drama I have ever seen on stage.

The play begins shortly after Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, as Charles — impersonated by Tim Pigott-Smith with great soberness and sympathy — is already agonizing over the crown that is finally his. The inevitable titters in the audience are dispensed with quickly as familiar faces troop onstage: Camilla (Margot Leicester), Charles’ always-supportive wife; William (Oliver Chris), his dutiful, rather stuffy elder son; Harry (Richard Goulding), the restless younger son with a roving eye and the un-Windsor-like red hair. (“Is Charles really your Dad?” says a girl he meets in a bar. “Or was it the other one?”)

It is Charles’ determination to rescue the monarchy from irrelevance that precipitates a constitutional crisis. While getting a routine briefing from his prime minister (Adam Jones, with hints of both David Cameron and Tony Blair), Charles balks at a bill passed by parliament that would put restrictions on freedom of the press. Concerned that the law would undermine the foundations of the democracy he is sworn to protect, Charles refuses to sign the bill. With polite deference but growing alarm, the PM protests that the king’s signature is merely ceremonial — that he does not have the power to flout the will of the people’s elected representatives.

Charles stands fast. Both political parties unite in their outrage, introducing a measure in Parliament that would strip the king of his power to approve legislation. Charles, rightly seeing the move as a threat to the very existence of the monarchy, responds by dissolving Parliament. The upshot is something approaching civil war — both in the country and in the royal family.

Bartlett (best known in the U.S. for Cock, his provocatively titled comedy of sexual confusion) and director Rupert Goold explore the ramifications of the crisis with plausibility, even-handedness — and empathy for nearly everyone involved. Charles may be a dithering pedant, but he has the integrity of his conviction that the monarchy, if it exists at all, must be something more than “a pretty, plastic picture with no meaning.” The political maneuvering is as intricate and Machiavellian as anything in House of Cards, but the combatants all have good, sincere reasons for their irreconcilable positions. There may be a touch of Lady Macbeth in the pushy and deceptive Kate Middleton — who eggs on William to oppose his father — but there’s also something admirable in her pragmatic, can-do attitude in this family of wusses.

If there’s a villain in the play, it is the system itself: a monarchy that inspires respect, even reverence — except when it actually tries to prove it has a reason for being. The Scots ended up voting to stay in the union. King Charles III audaciously, even brilliantly, lays bare the illogic of the monarchy that props up that fragile, sceptered isle.

TIME Television

The One With the Bad Review

The Cast Of Friends 1999 2000 Season From L R: David Schwimmer Jennifer Aniston Courteney Cox Ar
The Cast Of "Friends" from the 1999-2000 Season. From L-R: David Schwimmer, Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox Arquette, Matthew Perry, Lisa Kudrow And Matt Leblanc. Getty Images

TIME's critic gave 'Friends' a big thumbs down in its first season. Here's why he's standing by that review

“Life on Seinfeld may be laid back, but its characters always seem to have someplace to go. In Friends the crowd is always around to share their latest personal woes or offer a shoulder to cry on. But who would want advice from these dysfunctional morons, with their obsessive pop-culture references?” — Richard Zoglin’s review of the first season of Friends, which premiered 20 years ago on Sept. 22, 1994

Little did I know when I poked fun at Friends back in 1995 that I was dumping on what would become a TV classic.

But I was a dissenter then, and I’m still a dissenter. The show never rose above its artificial, formulaic roots — characters assembled straight from the sitcom-writer’s handbook, jokes delivered with mechanical predictability at the network-mandated rate of three per page. It became a little easier to watch over the years, thanks to sheer familiarity and as the actors and writers dove more deeply into the characters. And I admit the show looks better in retrospect: compared with The Big Bang Theory (or Two Broke Girls), Friends almost qualifies as cinema-verite.

Read that 1995 review, free of charge, here in TIME’s archives: Friends and Layabouts

TIME Theater

Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson: This Is Our Audition

Kieran Culkin and Michael Cera in This Is Our Youth Brigitte Lacombe

Kenneth Lonergan's This Is Our Youth boasts three Broadway debuts, and one great performance

Warren is a f—up. At least, that’s what everybody tells him: his father, a successful, vaguely mob-connected businessman who has just thrown him out of the house; his drug-dealing friend Dennis, on whose doorstep he shows up toting a suitcase filled with $15,000 in cash he has stolen from his dad; most of the girls whom he has had chased after with very little success, as his taunting friend keeps reminding him.

Dennis doesn’t want Warren around: there’s not enough room in his disheveled Manhattan apartment, he’s in the midst of breaking up with his girlfriend, and besides, the bumbling Warren hasn’t been there for 20 minutes before he’s accidentally trashed the place with an errant football. But Warren does offer one intriguing compensation: the $15,000, which Dennis proposes to use to finance a new drug deal — ostensibly to earn back the money Warren has already spent from his father’s stash, but mostly just to prove that Dennis is the baddest dealer in the neighborhood.

Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 play This Is Our Youth may look, in some superficial ways, like a familiar slacker comedy — though, set in the 1980s, it takes place at least a decade before the term became popular and Judd Apatow had even graduated from film school. But it’s a rarity on Broadway: a rich, rueful and really funny comedy.

The play’s comic engine is the interplay between Dennis and Warren, two rich kids suffering in different ways from their dysfunctional upbringing. The clash between the manic, abusive Dennis and the disaffected, childlike Warren has the contours of a classic comedy team — Abbott and Costello, or Martin and Lewis, or Lane and Broderick. Kieran Culkin, one-third of the starry cast that has brought Lonergan’s off-Broadway success to Broadway, is terrific as Dennis: confident and resourceful onstage, with the hopped-up intensity of a young Al Pacino and a slow burn that Jackie Gleason might envy. Yet he also hints gracefully at the loneliness and insecurity that lies beneath the bluster. It’s a great comic performance.

As Warren (the role originally played off-Broadway by Mark Ruffalo) Michael Cera is less satisfying. His sweetly affectless screen persona (from films like Superbad and Juno) is too puzzling and opaque here. He seems uncertain and tentative in his first Broadway appearance, his arms hanging lifelessly to his side, his voice a blank, high-pitched monotone. Still, he is an ingratiating presence, plays well off Culkin, and at least doesn’t hurt the production.

Tavi Gevinson does. The teenage media mogul (and acting newbie) plays Jessica, the cute girl who shows up, a little implausibly, in Dennis’s apartment and gets it on with Warren. She is too wired and high-pitched — her voice a clenched knot of anxieties, her body pitched forward as if she were a subway commuter trying to catch sight of the E train. Director Anna D. Shapiro (who first staged the show last June at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater) may have encouraged this odd take to cover up Gevinson’s uncertainty as an actress. But it throws the play out of whack for the two scenes in which she appears.

Whenever Culkin is onstage, however, This Is Our Youth sails along. Lonergan’s writing is sharp and subtle, suggesting a vivid array of offstage characters (Dennis’s drug connections, the girlfriend he alternately abuses and fawns over on the phone, the thugs who work for Warren’s Tony Soprano-like father) and neatly slipping in bits of sad back-story (Warren had a sister who was murdered) without spoiling the comedy. It’s a lopsided production, but a strong play that looks even better today than it did 18 years ago.

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