“The Elephant Man" seems to be about a lot of things - the way freaks are treated in a commercial society, the prudishness of Victorian England, the way science tries to keep pace with nature. The reason Bernard Pomerance's 1979 play matters, however, has nothing to do with its often elevated language and concerns. At heart it addresses the simple issue of what it means to be human. And because this blunt, unsentimental production, directed by Sean Matthias, makes that theme so compelling, the play has taken on a power and depth much greater than it had decades ago. Pomerance based his play on a 19th-century man named John Merrick, whose head was elephantine and deformed and whose body was covered with growths of cauliflower-like flesh, which had an awful stench. His childhood was of Dickensian cruelty. He was acquired by freak shows in London and Brussels, but came to the attention of a London doctor who brought him to a hospital to study. In the play, he becomes "fashionable."
The upper classes come to visit him, finding he makes wonderful conversation. He is befriended by an actress, who, sympathizing with the fact he has never seen a woman nude, shows him her breasts. Unfortunately, the doctor comes upon them and banishes her. Shortly afterward, Merrick dies, asphyxiated when his huge head crushes his windpipe. In the original production, the actor playing Merrick (Philip Anglim) had a boyish quality, which made him quite winning. The grotesqueness of his features was left to our imaginations. Billy Crudup, who plays the role here, does not make it so easy for us. Except for a theatrical turn midway through the play, where Merrick suddenly imitates his doctor and acts normally, Crudup twists his body and stretches his handsome features so that they have none of their usual grace. He speaks in a high-pitched, plaintive voice. We never forget that nature has treated him cruelly, which enhances our sense of the dignity he has won for himself. It is a tough, powerful performance. In this production, the focus shifts somewhat to the doctor, whose bewilderment grows as Merrick becomes far more than a subject for scientific scrutiny. Rupert Graves conveys his anguish beautifully. In some ways the most affecting character is the actress, who sheds the theatrical armor she uses to move in society as she becomes touched by Merrick. Kate Burton makes this transformation deeply moving. There are wonderful performances by Jack Gilpin, Edmond Genest and James Riordan in a variety of roles. Santo Loquasto's sets are very stark, a series of cold, ashen surfaces against which the action takes place under lighting that is generally harsh. At times near the beginning, the stage seems needlessly busy as actors rush around, but as the play moves toward its painful ending, the mood is still and suitably grave. Philip Glass' music only occasionally calls attention to itself. Mostly it adds to the drama. Among the effects the actual Merrick left was a model for a church, suggesting a religious dimension the play touches only tangentially. Nevertheless, Matthias' production is so clearheaded, the performances so focused, that the image of the church, however tentatively articulated, gains true force. Pomerance's troubling, touching play could not be more welcome.
Broadway likes nothing better than to retread the successes of its past. Unless you're Lot's Wife, looking back will always be safer than looking forward.
And back in 1979, Bernard Pomerance's play "The Elephant Man" was a hit, winning a number of Tony Awards, including one for Best Play.
Last night, now led by Billy Crudup, Rupert Graves and Kate Burton, and staged by Sean Mathias, it returned to New York at the Royale Theatre.
Yet despite the excellent production and first-class performances, I found myself faintly disappointed. Had I overvalued the play at first, or not picked up on its qualities now?
As the critics this time filed into our official previews, the press agent thoughtfully gave us each a copy of the play's paperback for later reference.
And there, right on the jacket, was my unequivocal encomium: " 'A giant of a play!' Clive Barnes, New York Post."
I would not go so far today. It is a good play, but not a giant.
In 1979, the true story of the Elephant Man was hot. Joseph Merrick was a 19th-century medical phenomenon suffering from hideous disfigurements of skin and body. The tale of his journey from sideshow freak to hospitalized figure in late Victorian society, first told in the memoirs of Sir Frederick Treves, the doctor who became Merrick's patron, had gotten fresh currency from a popular 1973 book by Ashley Montagu.
Only a year after Pomerance's play came a quite different telling of the story in David Lynch's movie of the same name, with John Hurt's remarkable, realistic portrayal of Merrick.
The play, which cleverly stylizes Merrick's deformities, is not as dramatically effective as the movie, which manages to avoid the pious moralizing of the play.
Yet, stage or screen, it's strange how fascinating the story of Merrick, the Elephant Man, continues to be.
Is it the simple freak-show interest or something deeper - our recognition of some hard-won triumph over the unimaginable adversity of the ultimate in physical deformity? And perhaps a comforting feeling that there but for the grace of God . . .?
Whichever, it is a most affecting story. Mathias' starkly Brechtian staging, helped by Santo Loquasto's imaginative and almost expressionist design, gives the play a finely schematic directness, something like a slide-show, that works extremely well.
Crudup's Elephant Man, with his high, tortured voice and slightly twisted body suggesting deformity in every tortured step, finds its best moment at the beginning, when he's transformed before our eyes from the actor to the acted, from Crudup to Merrick.
It's a fine performance, but without quite the pain and passion of one of Crudup's predecessors, David Bowie, who was fantastically fantastic.
The best performance is Graves' deeply nuanced Treves, although Burton, as the unshockable and compassionate actress who befriends Merrick, Edmund Genest as the imperturbable but kind hospital chief and Jack Gilpin neatly doubling as a huckster and a cleric, all do sterling work.
"The Elephant Man" remains worth seeing, more for the story it tells than for the way it tells it.
Medical descriptions of a severely deformed human body are elaborate and explicit in ''The Elephant Man,'' Bernard Pomerance's biographical drama from 1979. But in the coolly staged, warmly acted revival of the play that opened last night at the Royale Theater, the most vivid anatomy lesson occurs when an actor does nothing more than relax his facial muscles.
The actor is Billy Crudup, whose fine-grained handsomeness has become increasingly visible on both movie screens and New York stages in recent years. Though he wears no obvious makeup, he is unrecognizable in the title role of John Merrick, the grotesquely misshapen man who briefly became the toast of Victorian London.
Like others who have played the role before him, Mr. Crudup evokes his character's deformity without prosthetics. Instead, he contorts his face into an off-center mask -- his jaws slid sidewise, his mouth a skewed oval. And then comes the moment, just before the evening ends, when he simply lets go. The physical tension, so rigidly sustained for well over an hour, drains from his body, and Mr. Crudup's face is his own again.
This startling act of magic is of a kind that only theater affords, and it summons deeper responses than the carefully arranged, often eloquent words of Mr. Pomerance's drama. Mr. Crudup's moment of transformation, which signals the death of Merrick, evokes both relief and dismay. The lines that divide beauty and ugliness have been confoundingly blurred, and you are left uneasily sorting out your reactions.
Mr. Crudup is one of a trio of performers who are expertly practising such sorcery in ''The Elephant Man,'' which also stars Rupert Graves as the doctor who takes Merrick into his care and Kate Burton as the actress who befriends them. The director, Sean Mathias, has brought out the best in each, and the care and conviction with which they invest their roles go a long way in helping you swallow a play that turns out to have a distinct medicinal flavor.
Few New York theatergoers had heard of John Merrick when ''The Elephant Man'' first opened here 23 years ago, and Mr. Pomerance's presentation of him as an afflicted orphan of society had the advantage of novelty. The Dickensian melodrama and sentimentality of the story, which David Lynch also capitalized on in his 1980 film of the same title, made the play a popular hit and pushed Merrick's name into the common cultural orbit. (It made headlines when Michael Jackson was said to be interested in buying his bones.)
Twenty years on, the lecturer within ''The Elephant Man'' has emerged more clearly, with Mr. Pomerance seeming like an especially solemn disciple of Brecht. In following Merrick's path from sideshow freak to society's darling, the play uses its title character as a walking rebuke to Victorian imperialism and hypocrisy.
This Merrick is surprisingly close kin to Charles Dickens's ailing, angelic children who say what others dare not. He is a man who sweetly asks questions like the following: ''If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?'' And who in diagnosing his own condition says, ''I think my head is so big because it is full of dreams.''
Those whose memories have muddled Mr. Lynch's movie with the play may be surprised to find how little actual plot there is in the stage version. Merrick's grim exploitation by a sideshow manager (Jack Gilpin) and his subsequent deliverance by the rising young physician Frederick Treves (Mr. Graves) is dealt with in fairly short order.
The greater part of the evening is devoted to the impact Merrick has on representative members of the Victorian middle class and aristocracy after he is given a home at the London Hospital. Treves regularly leads his patient through social catechisms. ''If I abide by the rules, I shall be happy'' he is made to repeat, instantly casting the worth of such rules into doubt.
As Merrick's fame spreads, he receives eminent visitors, from bishops to princesses. All of them see at least a bit of themselves in his bizarre countenance.
The image of the fun-house mirror echoes through both Mr. Pomerance's text and Santo Loquasto's austerely handsome sideshow of a set. What is reflected, of course, is a world swollen with its own distorting deformities.
Mr. Mathias, who directed ''Dance of Death'' on Broadway earlier this season, underscores the work's Brechtian detachment. The cast members reposition the scenery and draw scene-framing curtains. The names that Mr. Pomerance has given to each of the play's scenes (e.g., ''Art Is Nothing as to Nature'') are projected in supertitles and recited in unison by the ensemble.
There is less theatrical zest than self-conscious solemnity in this presentation, a feeling compounded by Philip Glass's ominous ceremonial music. The effect is often of someone saying: ''Pay attention. This is important.''
But within this chilly, admonitory framework are some splendidly humane characterizations. Ms. Burton, seen only a few months ago on Broadway as a memorably brittle Hedda Gabler, confirms her growing reputation as a leading lady to reckon with.
As Mrs. Kendal, the celebrated actress who sees the sexual man in Merrick, she gives full due to her character's sharp-edged, studied charm. She also lets you see how much that charm is a necessary armor for a vulnerable soul.
Mr. Graves, who was the best thing about the Broadway version of Patrick Marber's ''Closer,'' is even better here. His Treves is a remarkable one-man incarnation of all those middle-class nervous breakdowns chronicled in Victorian memoirs. He has been asked to stand in for an entire social order, yet Mr. Graves makes Treves's crisis of faith a thoroughly individual experience, as the cracks in his complacency spread in subtle increments.
Wearing only period-specific white undershorts, Mr. Crudup has the taxing chore of both maintaining an excruciatingly gnarled posture and creating a portrait that goes beyond it. This he does admirably, integrating a sense of concentrated physical struggle as a part of daily existence, rather as Daniel Day-Lewis did in the movie ''My Left Foot.''
If the audience winds up responding to Merrick much as the characters in the later part of the play do, patronizing him as a sweet and noble pet, this is not Mr. Crudup's fault. Even as Mr. Pomerance registers disgust with those who would use Merrick as a personal mirror, the playwright is himself guilty of creating what is ultimately less a character than a societal measuring device.
Still, it is to Mr. Pomerance's credit that he envisioned Merrick in such particularly theatrical terms, and Mr. Crudup knows exactly how to put those terms into action. Reference is made early on to Merrick's left arm, which Treves describes as ''a delicately shaped limb'' with ''a beautiful hand which any woman might have envied.''
Notice the autonomous grace with which Mr. Crudup endows that hand throughout the evening. It speaks silently and movingly of the artistry that can emerge from that universally flawed instrument known as the human body.
The chilly chic of director Sean Mathias' production serves as a perfect backdrop for the radiant warmth of Billy Crudup's performance as Broadway's new "Elephant Man." With fine complementary turns from Rupert Graves and Kate Burton, who both bring crisp contemporary edges to their roles, this is an "Elephant Man" that should have a strong appeal for young audiences who didn't see the original (and who know the title from the David Lynch movie, which is unrelated but based on the same true story). Whether that will be enough to assure it success in a Broadway environment currently overwhelmed with plays old and new is another question.
Bernard Pomerance's play begins in documentary mode, revisiting the details of the sad (and now familiar) case of John Merrick (Crudup), a grossly deformed man who is first seen eking out a living in Victorian London by displaying himself to paying customers in a freak show. He's rescued from the cruel control of his economic exploiter by the young doctor Treves (Graves), a moralistic man who makes it his mission to civilize him. Merrick's alienation from society has left him emotionally battered and intellectually stunted.
But his intelligence and sensitivity are soon cultivated under the strict tutelage of Treves, who introduces him to influences both worldly and spiritual -- a priest, who finds in Merrick the pious believer that Treves manifestly isn't, and a celebrated actress, Mrs. Kendal (Burton), who is touched by his plight and sets out to introduce him to high society. As it proceeds, the documentary aspects of the play recede and "The Elephant Man" opens out to consider deeper questions suggested by its developments. It's structured as a series of many short, often elliptical scenes here announced by epigraphs ominously intoned by a chorus ("Art is permitted but nature forbidden," "The weight of dreams"). (Jack Hofsiss' less self-consciously theatrical production dispensed with these.)
Crudup, who contorts both his body and his face to suggest Merrick's deformity, gives a beautifully realized performance. He speaks in a high, gentle tone that always seems to contain both an apology and a question mark, and his left arm -- the character's only unblighted limb and his sole instrument of physical expression -- is used almost as eloquently. Even as Merrick grows more comfortable in company and reveals a mordant sense of humor that Crudup's sensitive underplaying always rescues from cuteness, he remains aware that he is something less than an equal and quietly mourns the fact. He's half man and half object -- of pity or patronage or fascination.
The play's painful central irony is that Crudup's Merrick comes to display a more embracing, inquisitive and warm humanity -- and a firmer foothold on contentment -- than his protector does. When he walks in upon Mrs. Kendal treating Merrick to a sight of her naked (upper) body, Treves fails utterly to mark the benevolence and sweet communion in the gesture -- she had, as she wryly notes, viewed photos of John even before meeting him -- and sees only lasciviousness. (Crudup's scenes with Burton's tartly witty Mrs. Kendal -- more earthy and less baroque than Carole Shelley's Tony-winning interpretation -- are among the evening's finest.)
Although Treves possesses all the privileges of a successful doctor, he gradually begins to come apart at the seams under the stress of caring for a patient who gently questions the tenets of his strict philosophy. In a dream sequence, Treves imagines himself as the object of prurient attention: freakish in his self-satisfaction and self-righteousness. By the end of the play, Graves' Treves looks haunted and unhinged, and the scene in which he breaks down before a colleague, echoing the plea for help Merrick had once addressed to him, is acutely painful and terrifically played.
The luminous warmth of Crudup's performance -- it finds an analog in the glow that emanates from the cathedral model Merrick constructs -- is placed in contrast to the harsh industrial-age contours of Mathias' physical production, suggesting the man's essential solitude in his environment.
Santo Loquasto's set, accented by an overhanging rectangle of glaring white neon, and Philip Glass' moody music are both in a chilly minimalist mode that recalls the work of Robert Wilson. James F. Ingalls' lighting is alternately gentle, lurid and clinical. Funhouse mirrors echo one of the play's more self-consciously self-explanatory sequences, in which Merrick's patrons all muse on his inner resemblance to themselves -- a result of both their egotism and his desperate need to belong.
Mathias' direction is only marred by a touch that seems to bedevil many British directors -- a seemingly irresistible need to point up a climax with dramatic activity on the set (see Richard Eyre's "Crucible"). This is a particular pity here, since what has come just before -- Crudup's quick and quiet revelation of the now spiritually complete man who sleeps inside the body of the physically deformed one -- is so moving and so effectively unadorned.