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

4 minute read

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.

Hollywood Stars Who Took to Broadway

Michelle Williams made her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles in the first Broadway revival of Cabaret.Joan Marcus—Roundabout Theatre
Theater Bryan Cranston
Bryan Cranston plays President Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way in his Broadway debut in March 2014.Evgenia Eliseeva—Jeffrey Richards Associates/AP
Waiting for Godot Cort Theatre
A veteran of the stage, Sir Ian McKellen made his Broadway debut in The Promise in 1967. Above, he plays Estragon in Waiting for Godot in 2014.Joan Marcus—Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP
Bradley Cooper starred opposite Julia Roberts in Three Days of Rain in 2006.Joan Marcus—AP
Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman
Daniel Craig, right, and Hugh Jackman are shown in a scene from A Steady Rain.Joan Marcus—The Hartman Group/AP
Jude Law
Jude Law made his Broadway debut in 1995 performing in Indiscretions. and returned in 2009 to star in Hamlet as its namesake character.Johan Persson—AP
Jane Lynch, The cast of "Annie"
Jane Lynch made her Broadway debut as Miss Hannigan in Annie in 2013. Above, she is seen performing her role on stage at the 67th Annual Tony AwardsEvan Agostini—AP
Waiting for Godot Cort Theatre
Patrick Stewart, left, and Ian McKellen star in Samuel Beckett's play Waiting for Godot.Joan Marcus—Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP
Tony Nominations
When she wasn't off saving the world as Black Widow, Scarlett Johansson made her Broadway debut as Catherine in the 2010 play A View From The Bridge. Joan Marcus—AP
Katie Holmes, Patrick Wilson
Katie Holmes played Ann Deever in her Broadway debut in Arthur Miller's All My Sons.Joan Marcus—Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP
Daniel Radcliffe, Lorenzo Pisoni
Famous for being the boy who lived, Daniel Radcliffe, left, took his talents to the stage and debuted on Broadway in Equus in 2008.Carol Rosegg—AP
Al Pacino
Al Pacino appeared as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice in 2010.Joan Marcus—AP
Theater Review Death of a Salesman
Andrew Garfield played Biff in his Broadway debut in the 2012 revival of Death of a Salesman.Brigitte Lacombe—Boneau/Bryan-Brown/AP
George C. Wolfe, Maura Tierney , Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks finally added a Broadway role to his impressive resume when he played Mike McAlary in the 2013 original play Lucky Guy.Dario Cantatore—AP
Curtain Call for "CINDERELLA" on Broadway Starring Carly Rae Jepsen and Fran Drescher
Best known for her hit song "Call Me Maybe," Carly Rae Jepsen played the titular character in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella in 2014.Kristina Bumphrey—AP
Theater Cinderella
Jepsen is accompanied in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella by Fran Drescher, who made her Broadway debut as the wicked step mother.Kristina Bumphrey—AP
Yes, even Diddy has performed on Broadway. Rap Mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, left, made his Broadway debut as Walter Lee Younger in the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun.Joan Marcus—AP

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