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Magic in the Making — Mostly

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Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola in “The Elephant Man.” | JOAN MARCUS
Bradley Cooper and Alessandro Nivola in “The Elephant Man.” | JOAN MARCUS

As remarkable as Bradley Cooper’s slow transformation from hunk to horror is in the splendid revival of “The Elephant Man,” that’s just a warm-up to one of the most richly understated and surprisingly moving performances of the season. The play tracks John Merrick’s journey from sideshow freak to unconventional celebrity and darling of London society. Of course, people come to “gape and yawp” at him in both roles and he is no less a freak in a fashionable suit than wearing rags in a tent. The not-so-subtle themes of how the power of celebrity changes the way a person is perceived and what of ourselves we project onto celebrities are never far below the surface.

In the sideshow, Merrick is the stuff of nightmares. Saved from abuse, dressed well, and given a chance to be more human, he provides the opportunity for the wealthy to gratify their egos by being close to him. At heart, it’s not a particularly original story, but it is universal. Who has not at one point or other felt freakish or misunderstood and longed to be accepted for who they are? It’s one of those stories audiences never tire of, and, at least in this production, it’s seldom been so compelling.

Director Scott Ellis had the excellent sense to present the story simply and as written, relying on his wonderful cast and the empathic imaginations of his audience to give this production its power. Cooper’s physicality once established becomes almost secondary to Merrick’s unfolding as a thoughtful and creative human being. Contorted body aside, the performance is all in Cooper’s eyes and attitudes, always effectively conveying Merrick’s discovered depth while allowing a larger cultural commentary to resonate quietly. Cooper brings such honesty to the role that Merrick’s final choice is as understandable as it is heartbreaking.

Magnificent revival, stellar one-man show, and a bunch of tired princesses

Cooper’s work is beautifully complemented by Alessandro Nivola as Fredrik Treves, the doctor who rescues Merrick from the sideshow and protects him in the hospital. Though the role is largely expository at first and reactive later on, Treves also has to discover the humanity within the science –– and becomes a richer person for it. Nivola is always excellent on stage (he was the best thing in “The Winslow Boy” at Roundabout), but he’s never been better or clearer than in this production.

As Mrs. Kendal, the actress who propels Merrick into the social sphere, Patricia Clarkson is equally outstanding, with just the right balance of heart and theatricality. The rest of the company, particularly Henry Stram as the head of the hospital and Anthony Heald as Bishop Walsham How who forces his faith on Merrick, are solid and effectively create the world of the play –– a beautifully conceived world presented far too rarely these days.

Jonny Donahoe in “Every Brilliant Thing.” | MATTHEW MURPHY
Jonny Donahoe in “Every Brilliant Thing.” | MATTHEW MURPHY

I’m always a sucker for a small story wonderfully told. “Every Brilliant Thing” is just that. The one-man show starring Jonny Donahoe, which he wrote with Duncan Macmillan, tells Donahoe’s story from boyhood to present day. Along the way, he deals with his mother’s suicide attempts, depression, family upheaval, and the messy process of living. His coping mechanism was to write a list of every thing he thought was brilliant — something that occupied him intermittently throughout his life and played a part in every major turning point.

The play is simply Donahoe recounting the story, and he enlists audience members to read things on the list and play other parts. This might seem labored, but in performance Donahoe is appealing and engaging, and the reading of items from the list — some silly, some highly relatable — at times becomes quite emotional. At one point, Donahoe says, “Anyone who has made it to a certain point in life and hasn’t dealt with crushing depression hasn’t been paying attention.” That he has –– as presumably have many in the audience ––and the fact that something as simple as a list and a bit of mindfulness can take one off the brink and back into life should serve as potent reminders of our ability to find ways to keep going. Donahoe and this show go on my list of brilliant things.

Your rewards for enduring the inept and tedious revue “Disenchant­ed!” are the performances of the six amazingly talented women in the cast. They deserve much better material, and I fully expect we’ll soon see Michelle Knight, Becky Gulsvig, Jen Bechter, Alison Burns, Lulu Picart, and Soara-Joye Ross in something much better. From outstanding voices and terrific technique to dead-on comic timing, these women are brilliant and delightful.

The show’s premise is that the Disney princesses are going to shake off the shackles of male domination and be liberated — even if only for one night — to be truly themselves. The jokes are predictable. A thousand princes and all the wizardry in the realm couldn’t save this piece, whose book, music, and lyrics are by Dennis T. Giacino. The lyrics –– with rare exceptions –– are uninspired.

Most egregious, however, is the hackneyed girl power message. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that from Belle to Elsa, the contemporary Disney princesses are strong, smart, and independent women with no need of a man to rescue them. And, in any event, satirizing Disney has been done to death — and usually much better. When Giacino is at a loss for the legitimately funny, he resorts to the pandering and vulgar, which is too easy and always falls flat.

THE ELEPHANT MAN | Booth Theatre, 225 W. 45th St. | Through Feb. 15: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $99-$169 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | Two hrs., with intermission

EVERY BRILLIANT THING | Barrow Street Theatre, 27 Barrow St., btwn. W. Fourth St. & Seventh Ave. S. | Through Mar. 29: Tue.-Sun. at 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2:30 p.m. | $55, $75; smarttix.com or 212-868-4444 | 70 mins., no intermission

DISENCHANTED! | Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. | Through Jan. 25: Mon.-Tue. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 3 p.m. | $78 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111 | One hr., 40 mins.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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