It is fair to say that "The Elephant Man" would not be back on Broadway if Bradley Cooper were less determined to play the lead.
But he has long been determined, even oddly obsessed with John Merrick, the hideously deformed man who rose from freak-show monster to high-society pet in Victorian London. And we say good for him and his smashing, heart-ripping portrayal. And good enough for Bernard Pomerance's 1977 philosophical adventure story, which, as always, is better on the theatrical adventure than on its fuzzy philosophy.
Cooper, arguably the most beautiful creature to play ugly in the multi-award- winning drama, fully justifies the hyped-up anticipation in his first Broadway turn since getting lost in Julia Roberts' shadow eight years ago in "Three Days of Rain."
Unlike the character in David Lynch's realistic 1980 movie, the play's Merrick is embodied without makeup or props. One of the script's most effective scenes comes early, as the healthy-bodied actor, dressed only in wrinkled shorts, contorts as we watch slides of the real Merrick. As his journey continues, however, he can come off as less a character than a visual and symbolic object -- or, if you will, more as a physical stunt than a person.
But Cooper, with his hip hiked up and his mouth tugged down, even makes us flinch for the soul of the man when completely hidden in a mound of soiled linen. For all the very real physical virtuosity, however, we are just as moved by the sounds Cooper makes -- a painful snorkel of audible inhales and glottal exhales -- that, by the time Merrick gets turned into an almost debonair gentleman, somehow combine that pain with his dry wit.
Scott Ellis, who also directed Cooper in the role at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012, has staged a fast-moving, stylized production. Patricia Clarkson has a shrewd, striking lack of artifice as the actress who befriends him, while Alessandro Nivola valiantly struggles with the play's most pretentious exclamations as the ambivalent doctor who rescues Merrick for science and civility.
As society's new darling holds up a mirror to the arbitrary horror of normality and the dangerous tyranny of fashion, everyone -- the bishop (Anthony Heald), the scientist (Henry Stram) and even the Dickensian freak-show manager (Scott Lowell) -- sees himself in him.
For all the scene-changing curtains and handsome costumes, however, this remains one of those mankind-on-trial plays so popular in the '70s -- theatrically effective but never as profound as it believes itself to be. But Cooper's belief in it is touching, even enthralling. He is the real deal.