Tuesday, September 17, 2013

When it comes to The Elephant Man, there's a critical elephant in the room

Tim Spears as Joseph (john) Merrick. Production photos: Andrew Brilliant.

Ah, The Elephant Man. I've never quite understood the praise that Bernard Pomerance's only success reliably receives. I've sometimes even wondered whether the phenomenon this author attempts to analyze - i.e., people's laudable denial of their reaction to the physical plight of the eponymous Joseph Merrick (for some reason, "John" Merrick in the play) - isn't reflected in the attitude of audiences to Pomerance's script itself. Just as no one wants to callously tread on the feelings of the deformed Elephant Man, so no one wants to criticize this misshapen play, either - because that too would look horribly uncivilized. (So there's a certain exploitation of high-mindedness built right into Pomerance's high-mindedness.) But you know, we've been called worse than "uncivilized" at the Hub Review - so off we go, acting like a real critic once again (because - of course - gawking at someone's disability is completely different from pondering the flaws in a play).

Pomerance's script is certainly touching - if unfocused - for a little over half its length; its account of Merrick's dreadful subsistence as a side-show freak is dramatically workable, and the playwright has a strong (but only general) sense of the ironies attending his hero's eventual deliverance to London Hospital (through the intervention of a concerned physician, Frederick Treves).

But the script's central gimmick - that the audience sees not Merrick's body (below) but his "soul," if you will, in the form of an attractive, half-nude young man - lets us off the very moral hook Pomerance pretends to be sharpening. And once the Elephant Man's social victimization is over, the playwright's grip on his material begins to slip. At first he deploys an inspired gambit (that might have carried him through his second act): finding that most people can't stomach the sight of Merrick, Treves engages a professional actress to draw him out - on the theory that she has been trained to mask her true emotions. Now this is quite a good idea; it's ripe with both sentiment and irony, and it briefly flowers dramatically. But Pomerance abruptly drops it - and his actress, the actual Mrs. Kendal - in a jab at Victorian prudery, and alas, his play never recovers from her loss. The author swings at new targets, but he doesn't land many - or maybe even any - of his punches. And we're left pondering not Pomerance's vague moral debating points, but rather the way in which those points ape, or simply serve, the Brecht-on-Broadway performance techniques of the play's period (the late 70's and 80's, which seem to be enjoying a second heyday on our local stages).

Joseph Merrick at London Hospital
These issues stalk (and ultimately bring down) the elegant new production at the New Rep, which is reviving Pomerance's hit just after essaying Amadeus last season (see note above regarding the 80's greatest hits!), and with that earlier production's star in the lead (the talented Tim Spears, at top).  Under the detailed direction of artistic director Jim Petosa (who has done this play three times before - why?), the New Rep cast makes the material work, more or less, as it always has, more or less: the first half holds the stage, the second half - doesn't.  There's some mention in the program of how the current debates over Obamacare have made the question of access to healthcare highly relevant - only what works in the play isn't really about access to healthcare (indeed, Merrick received no effective treatment); it is, instead, about the impossibility of true intimacy across the gulf that Merrick's terrible affliction created.

Indeed, what's probably most theatrically relevant about The Elephant Man is that it's a title the suburban audience of a certain age may have heard of. Not that there's anything wrong with connecting with your audience (still, two middlebrow Broadway hits in a row?).  Sigh.  Oh, well. To be fair, the touching facts that Pomerance borrows from Merrick's short life (such as the model churches he built of card, like the one below) do give the conclusion of the play some poignance. The author's larger themes, however - such as Treves' guilty claim that Merrick's celebrity contributed to his decline and death - feel like so much pseudo-intellectual fudge.

The New Rep production can at least boast another fine performance from Tim Spears as Merrick - this young actor, who made a near-perfect Mozart in Amadeus, is here not only utterly physically committed to his role, but also gives Merrick a touchingly dignified emotional restraint. I don't think I quite saw the arc, however, that I believe is possible within the part - that is, the opening of romantic hope in Merrick's heart, and then its destruction - followed by a lonely, resigned spirituality (and a possible suicide). But perhaps that kind of depth will come as the run continues. Alas, in the rather more confused  (and irritatingly self-involved) role of Treves,  Michael Kaye (who was recently quite good in Clybourne Park) seemed rather more at sea, and such talented stalwarts of the local scene as Joel Colodner, Russell Garrett, Ross MacDonald and Esme Allen only managed to make muted impressions with their muddled parts. But then the acting rose and fell with the writing: Valerie Leonard managed to cut a complicated but sympathetic profile as Mrs. Kendal, which is the second best part in the play.

Model church built by Joseph Merrick.
In other respects, the production hewed to the New Rep's usual high production standards. In a nice touch, Merrick's travails were sensitively accompanied on period oboe (by the talented Louis Toth, playing themes devised by sound designer David Reiffel). And Molly Trainer's costumes were likewise subtle and always appropriate, while Jon Savage's set - a mirrored proscenium, topped with sacred arches - perhaps conveyed the playwright's combination of themes more clearly than he himself did.  I left the New Rep once more admiring this renewed company's talent pool. I simply questioned - as I find myself doing at more and more local stages - their choice of material.

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