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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
The current production
of The Elephant Man is curiously out of balance. It strains to soar into the
realm of mesmerizing theatrical magic with brilliant acting by Billy Crudup in the title
role, but it is tethered by several threads of timing, performance, and script that do not
let the evening as a whole fly nearly as high as its leading actor.
The play received its first New York production off-Broadway in 1979,
and then moved to Broadway to run from 1979 to 1981. The very existence of Joseph Merrick,
a horribly deformed man known as the elephant man, was a newly shocking bit of Victorian
trivia. The next year audiences world wide became aware of the "elephant man"
through the film, directed by David Lynch. To make all this seem somehow new and fresh
today takes something---a gimmick, perhaps.
It is to the credit of Billy Crudup and director Sean Mathias that they
chose no gimmick at all, just an exquisite display of the actor's craft. With no
prostheses or padding or visible makeup, Crudup creates Joseph Merrick (called John in the
play), a man who is painfully deformed and truly ugly. As the story unfolds the ugliness
seems to fall away as the inner sensitivity and beauty of the character is revealed.
Although his deformity keeps him from speaking properly, he is able to utter more and more
poetry, wisdom, and wit. Without mask or padding, the actor's face, body, and voice are
left unimpeded to reveal the character. The absence of mask also allows Merrick to be a
mirror for each of the main characters of the play, each of whom sees some feature of his
or her own personality reflected.
Unfortunately, Crudup's dazzling performance is in a play that is
flawed. Today, with most people knowing at least the outlines of the story, the surprising
story-telling element of the play is not nearly as strong. There is virtually no suspense.
Once Merrick is taken in by Doctor Treves and given a home in London Hospital, there is no
real threat that he will be forced back onto the streets. Funds to support him flow in,
the rich and powerful want to come and visit him, one or two even want to befriend him.
His life now is not perfect, but he is certainly much better off than he had been.
But, and the play makes much of this, he must obey the rules. "If
I abide by the rules, I shall be happy," Treves makes him repeat over and over. In
the midst of obeying the rules, Merrick exercises his creativity as he builds a lovingly
detailed scale model of a cathedral and forms a more or less loving relationship with Mrs.
Kendall, a famous actress. He eats well, is given expensive gifts, and gets free medical
care. But---and the playwright seems to want the viewer to believe this is particularly
onerous--- he has to obey some rules. This obeying of rules is apparently meant to comment
on the limiting strictures of Victorian---or perhaps even today's---society, but the
notion is banal.
The famous actress is played by Kate Burton, who starred on Broadway
last season in Hedda Gabler.
Burton gives the character a fascinating sense of depth. First seen as a strutting,
overdressed, self-consciously witty but apparently shallow woman, she slowly morphs,
through her growing relationship with Merrick, into a fully dimensional, flawed, yet
beautiful woman. She is even willing, in an act that Doctor Treves sees as horribly
immoral, to relate to the man beneath the deformities in a sexual way. Burton is in
complete control of her actor's craft, playing each emotion, each new level of her
relationship with Merrick, to perfection.
The least effective of the leading three performances is Rupert Graves
as Doctor Treves. Although the character must seem more and more uncomfortable in his own
skin and his own mind, Graves seems uncomfortable in the role itself. This is partly due
to the play; he must deliver a long, rambling monologue that stops dead the forward motion
of the story and adds nothing of much interest. Neither the character nor the performance
are compelling enough to sustain his going on at such length about the crumbling of his
inner life and an incipient nervous breakdown.
The story of Joseph Merrick could be powerfully told in a one character
monologue delivered directly to the audience by an actor with the art and craft of Billy
Crudup. In this production, almost everything other than his performance seems, while
sometimes mildly engaging, somehow beside the point.
New York, April 18, 2002
- Roy Sorrels