Let’s not pretend there’s any reason to revive The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 play about the short, difficult life of Joseph Merrick — now playing at the Booth, smoothly directed by Scott Ellis — except to provide a star part for a star. Here the latter is ascendant leading man Bradley Cooper. Strangely, that makes this meretricious production faithful to the play’s subject. After all, celebrity vanity projects on Broadway have one thing in common with sideshows: The audience is there to stare.
The play illustrates how the deformed Merrick — sideshow attraction turned cause célèbre — fed into Victorian preoccupations, from up-by-the-bootstraps self-improvement to narratives of civilizing savagery. But it also sentimentalizes him: Too innocent for a corrupted world, Merrick nevertheless teaches a host of privileged types some important lessons about themselves. As Merrick, Cooper delivers a strenuous piece of physical mimicry, face pulled askew, limbs splayed, piping voice emerging amid gasps. But the bodily demands are so great we can’t see past the effort.
Does the spectacle of a notoriously handsome actor imitating a notoriously disfigured man justify an evening of your time? You’ll have to answer that question yourself — but the standing ovations and award noms are guaranteed. When I saw the show, the audience leapt to its feet as if pulled by strings. That’s the real freak show here.