Spring Cluttering

What gave Jack Hofsiss's 1978 production its depth and excitement, of course, was the dynamic tension of its relations to the text. Without concealing the cynicism of Bernard Pomerance's script, it shaped its performances to give the evening a Victorian roundness and compassion that made the whole add up to a more complex sum. Merrick, the malformed hero, rescued from a miserable life of sideshow exhibition to become a permanent boarder in a hospital where the upper class could stare at him for free, was still a problematic figure in a prurient world, but there was a cosmic sense of pity in the performance for him, for his ambitious rescuer, and for all the characters whose motives were all so chillingly and unnervingly mixed. Until last week, the script's clever but snide edginess had slipped my mind; what stuck there were the three-dimensional figures embodied by Phillip Anglim, Carole Shelley, and Kevin Conway.

Mathias's cast does nothing to dislodge them, though I suspect my memory will have to make room, in a side compartment, for Billy Crudup's sincere and thorough reading of Merrick. If he lacks the pain and pathos that Anglim brought, he offers instead a sweet self-reliance that's closer to human emotion than anything else in this production. Rupert Graves's "pushing young particle" of a doctor, who shouts and bullies, especially when telling others to keep calm, suggests an aggressive bank clerk rather than a surgeon in ordinary to the Crown Prince. Similarly, it's impossible to imagine Kate Burton's glib, chipper Mrs. Kendal lasting five minutes on the Victorian stage, much less staying a popular favorite for four decades. (Burton does have one great moment, when she's obliged to take Merrick's misshapen right hand, and she lets us sense but not see the shudders she's suppressing.) But it's hard to blame the actors: Mathias's staging tends to remove both grace and sense from every moment; typically, in the climactic dream sequence, he puts the focus on Merrick, who has all the lines. Of course, the person whose reactions we should be watching is Treves, the surgeon, whose nightmare this is. But Mathias, like many British directors, seems to think human drama much less interesting than the distractions of an illustrated lecture. His brand of contemporary clutter is too pallidly predictable for my taste.

Anthony Mackie and Maria Tucci in Talk: debatable Aymes
photo: Carol Rosegg
Anthony Mackie and Maria Tucci in Talk: debatable Aymes


By Carl Hancock Rux
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street

The Elephant Man
By Bernard Pomerance
Royale Theatre
Broadway and 45th Street

In this pileup, I have no space for the show I enjoyed most last week: That's the Ticket!, which died on its pre-Broadway tour in 1948 and is only now getting a New York concert premiere from the enterprising "Musicals Tonight!" series. Julius and Philip Epstein's script merges A Connecticut Yankee with Born Yesterday; Harold Rome's songs add a dash of syncopated Offenbach; and an original cast alumnus, the beloved clown George S. Irving, has a high old time in the comic lead. Even debris was better back then.

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