NEW YORK (AP) — Leave it to the Sexiest Man Alive of 2011 to give us a lesson about ugliness.
Bradley Cooper quite literally transforms himself in the new Broadway revival of "The Elephant Man" from a Hollywood hunk into a man of "physical hideousness, incapacitating deformities and unremitting pain."
Cooper's left hand curls uncomfortably, his left foot grows weak and gimpy, his torso drops awkwardly, his mouth twists as if paralyzed by a stroke and his voice turns into a heavy-breathing, wet lisp.
It might not seem like it, but make no mistake: The production that opened Sunday at the Booth Theatre is a vanity project.
Cooper, known for so long for his looks first and talent second, seems to want to focus on his skills by choosing Bernard Pomerance's play about John Merrick, the horribly deformed man who galvanized London society in the late 19th century. It is a dangerous gamble, but Cooper not only pulls it off, he does it quite brilliantly. He manages to look ugly outside and yet beautiful inside.
Pomerance's tale showcases the triumph of a very human spirit, personified by the sensitive, almost saintly Merrick. This is a man who finds safe haven in a London hospital after spending much of his life in second-rate carnivals as a freak attraction — and then blossoms. What's more, he becomes the confidante of celebrated actresses, statesmen and even royalty.
It's easy to see why such diverse performers as David Bowie, Mark Hamill and Billy Crudup would want to portray John Merrick, a man who took such joy in the most ordinary things. "Sometimes I think my head is so big because it is so full of dreams," Merrick says. "Do you know what happens when dreams cannot get out?"
Cooper gives Merrick an impish quality, a man who knows how to turn on the charm when he needs to and even flirt. It is a deeply yearning, fully humanized vision of Merrick. In addition to erasing his own heartthrob persona here, Cooper gets to play with the whole notion of fame and celebrity.
"I would prefer it where no one stared at me," Merrick confides at one point. To an actress who visits him, Merrick comments: "You must display yourself for your living then. Like I did."
Director Scott Ellis has in Cooper not only an actor considered one of the best looking in the world ready to defile himself, but a supporting cast that is more than up to the challenge.
Alessandro Nivola plays Dr. Frederick Treves, Merrick's doctor and chief defender, with a coiled Victorian intensity and a hint of menace. His breakdown at the end is painfully effective, a loosening of all the contradictions he's facing. Patricia Clarkson as the admiring Mrs. Kendal is the opposite — warm and feminine, with a wise wit. Her reappearance at the end of the play is not scripted but perfect nonetheless.
Anthony Heald in the dual roles of Merrick's carnival owner and later Bishop Walsham How, manages to keep both characters' exploitative needs barely under the surface. It is he who notices that the common men who paid money to stare at a freak are not much different from the rich who now enjoy being around Merrick. "Difference now is you ain't charging for it," he says.
Pomerance's play puts Merrick in the middle of a tug-of-war between science and religion. The Elephant Man becomes whatever the viewer wants. "I conclude that we have polished him like a mirror, and shout hallelujah when he reflects us to the inch," says his doctor.
This two-hour revival, performed at a crisp pace, has been made handsome thanks to Timothy R. Mackabee's set design that leans on the ingenious use of multiple curtains — echoing doctor's office curtains that conceal and reveal in a flash — and Philip S. Rosenberg's moody and complex lighting work, which ranges from harsh overhead spotlights when Merrick craves dark corners, to the golden, genteel lighting of upper society.
The play ends on a tantalizing note, with Merrick's last actions perhaps open to interpretation. The playwright has The Elephant Man die in his sleep, of natural causes, but Cooper seems to be hinting at another, more profound end. In any case, this is a beautiful production in every way, particularly because its leading actor has so well hidden his own beauty.
Mark Kennedy is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits