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.