Bradley Cooper has already made the new Broadway revival of "The Elephant Man" a hot ticket, with fans lined up in front of the theater for scarce seats and behind it for autographs and selfies with the star. Whether the critics would react with the same enthusiasm was unknown until Sunday evening, when the production officially opened at the Booth Theatre in New York.
The new staging of Bernard Pomerance's play, seen two years ago at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, marks Cooper's first return to Broadway since his 2006 appearance in "Three Days of Rain," in which the star attraction was not Cooper but Julia Roberts.
In "The Elephant Man," Cooper takes on the physically challenging role of John Merrick, an Englishman born with extensive physical deformities. Rescued from a life as a freak-show attraction by a doctor (Alessandro Nivola), Merrick begins the slow process of acclimating to civilization. Among the friends he eventually makes is a famous actress (Patricia Clarkson).
The new production, directed by Scott Ellis, has been a pet project for Cooper, who has stated in interviews that he was inspired at an early age by the 1980 David Lynch movie "The Elephant Man." (The movie isn't based on the play.)
As is customary with productions of Pomerance's drama, Cooper doesn't use prosthetic makeup to bring Merrick to life. Instead, the actor contorts his body and speaks in an almost undecipherable style.
How did critics react to the new revival production and to Cooper's performance?
Ben Brantley of the New York Times focused on Cooper's star power in his review, writing that "you’re always aware of the sheer, looming presence of him. He is, as he should be, the elephant in the room." As for the staging, it "doesn’t hit you over the head with implicit metaphors or sermonizing, which is just as well, since the script sometimes does."
Deadline's Jeremy Gerard wrote that in a role played by a number of famous actors, "Cooper is the best Merrick yet... [he] achieves power in the performance by keeping everything low-key." The play itself is "middle-brow" but "there's little denying the sentimental power of the story of John Merrick."
David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter described Cooper's performance as "tremendously moving," adding that the principal cast "transforms this rather starchy play from patronizing edification into a haunting emotional experience." Cooper's performance "is staggering in its physical discipline, its piercing emotional transparency and, most surprisingly, its restraint."
The Associated Press' Mark Kennedy concluded that Cooper "not only pulls it off, he does it quite brilliantly. He manages to look ugly outside and yet beautiful inside." From its acting to its set design, "this is a beautiful production in every way, particularly because its leading actor has so well hidden his own beauty."