By: David Sheward
Two current productions reflect a growing Broadway trend: all-star vehicles in their third Main Stem incarnation. The Elephant Man and A Delicate Balance are established dramatic fare in limited runs headlined by surefire box-office champs. They are satisfying evenings but only the latter challenges its audience.
The Elephant Man, Bernard Pomerance’s 1977 biographical work of John Merrick whose hideous deformity masked a gentle spirit, is a moving portrait of its subject (his real name was Joseph) and a scathing indictment of the puritanical Victorian era in which he lived. Merrick is rescued from a pitiable existence as a sideshow freak by the prominent surgeon Frederick Treves who attempts to give the misshapen man as normal an existence as possible by introducing him to high society. This includes the actress Madge Kendal. Her sympathetic visits culminate with a brief erotic display when she exposes her breasts to Merrick who has never been looked on with romantic tenderness before.
Director Scott Ellis has emphasized the sentiment and turns the spotlight on film star Bradley Cooper in the title role at the expense of Pomerance’s cool observations. (Sean Mathias took a more objective stance in his 2002 revival.) Ellis chooses to eliminate the Brechtian song warbled by a pair of Belgian "pinheads" to Merrick just before he expires by sleeping on his back, letting his heavy head crush his windpipe, and then adds a syrupy finish by having Mrs. Kendal make a final entrance and embrace the dead Merrick.
It’s laudable of Cooper to attempt this difficult role and he carries it off with expertise and passion, twisting his muscular frame and handsome features into Elephant Man’s pitiable form. Alessandro Nivola is commanding and compassionate as the conflicted Treves, expressing the doctor’s desire for conformity and his doubts about his strict morality. Patricia Clarkson is delightfully droll as Mrs. Kendal, but overplays her theatricality. Anthony Heald admirably doubles as the avaricious manager and a pious bishop, both of whom exploit Merrick for their own ends. Timothy R. Mackabee’s bare set resembles a stark exhibition hall, lit with unforgiving sterility by Philip S. Rosenberg and the exterior Booth Theatre is decorated like a period circus. Ellis and company deliver a solid professional staging but a deeper rendering of the script would have produced a richer experience.
Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance gets a more shaded interpretation in Pam MacKinnon’s thoughtful revival. The 1966 play was received with quizzical shrugs by the press and audiences in its initial edition and closed after a brief run. It won the Pulitzer, but many saw that as a consolation prize after Albee had been denied the award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Gerald Guitterez’s 1996 Lincoln Center version gave fresh perspective to the drama and MacKinnon adds even more in this nuanced revival.
The central conceit of Albee’s play is wide open to interpretation. Wealthy suburban couple Agnes and Tobias, already dealing with the return of their much-divorced daughter Julia and the troubled residence of Agnes’ alcoholic sister Claire, find themselves in an ethical dilemma when their best friends Harry and Edna show up one night asking to move in because they’re frightened. Their source of their terror is never explained and the question becomes not what is scaring the refugees but what to do with them. Albee asks the difficult questions: What are the limits of friendship and what do we owe those close to us?
With the same insight she brought to her 2012 direction of Virginia Woolf, MacKinnon makes this existential conundrum very real. The relationships are believable and the cause of Harry and Edna’s flight and fright is as tangible and yet as ephemeral as Godot. They don’t want to die alone and they believe their friends will save them for this fate. At least that’s what I got from the marvelously specific acting of Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins as the terrified couple. John Lithgow is equally intense as the confused Tobias. At first Tobias is mystified by the problems besetting him and hides behind his newspaper and brandy, but this incisive actor gradually reveals the character’s awareness of his isolation. His final plea for Harry to stay becomes a desperate plea for meaning. Lithgow makes us see that Tobias realizes that 40 years of friendship count for nothing when it comes to facing death and it terrifies him just as it does Harry and Edna. It makes Albee’s sometimes obscure living room drama a searing confrontation with the unknown.
As the in-control Agnes, Glenn Close is coolly commanding, but fails to show the tremors beneath her icy surface. Lindsay Duncan makes a marvelously acerbic Claire and doesn’t take over the play as Elaine Stritch did in the 1996 version. Martha Plimpton keeps Julia from turning into a whining brat, but affects a stereotypical "stagey" voice. Santo Loquasto designed the well-appointed set and Ann Roth provided the chic costumes, though Agnes does appear as if she’s headed for a Kennedy Center Gala rather than an evening dealing with life’s biggest mysteries.
The Elephant Man:*** Dec. 7-Feb. 15, 2015. Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., NYC. Tue, Thu., 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri., Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., 2 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Running time: two hours including intermission. $99-$169. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Photos: Joan Marcus
A Delicate Balance: **** Nov. 20-Feb. 22, 2015. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., NYC. Running time: two hours and 45 mins. including two intermissions. Tue., Thu., 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri., Sat., 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun., 2 p.m. $60-$155. (212) 239-6200 or www.telecharge.com
Photo: Brigette Lacombe
Originally Published on December 15, 2014 in ArtsinNY.com
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The Cast of A Delicate Balance