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Bradley Cooper dazzles as "The Elephant Man"

Leave it to the Sexiest Man Alive of 2011 to give us a lesson about ugliness.

Bradley Cooper quite literally transforms himself in the new Broadway revival of "The Elephant Man" from a Hollywood hunk into a man of "physical hideousness, incapacitating deformities and unremitting pain."

Cooper's left hand curls uncomfortably, his left foot grows weak and gimpy, his torso drops awkwardly, his mouth twists as if paralyzed by a stroke and his voice turns into a heavy-breathing, wet lisp.

It might not seem like it, but make no mistake: The production that opened Sunday at the Booth Theatre is a vanity project.

Cooper, known for so long for his looks first and talent second, seems to want to focus on his skills by choosing Bernard Pomerance's play about John Merrick, the horribly deformed man who galvanized London society in the late 19th century. It is a dangerous gamble, but Cooper not only pulls it off, he does it quite brilliantly. He manages to look ugly outside and yet beautiful inside.

Pomerance's tale showcases the triumph of a very human spirit, personified by the sensitive, almost saintly Merrick. This is a man who finds safe haven in a London hospital after spending much of his life in second-rate carnivals as a freak attraction - and then blossoms. What's more, he becomes the confidante of celebrated actresses, statesmen and even royalty.

Cooper gives Merrick an impish quality, a man who knows how to turn on the charm when he needs to and even flirt. It is a deeply yearning, fully humanized vision of Merrick. Cooper also gets to play with the whole notion of fame and celebrity.

"I would prefer it where no one stared at me," Merrick confides at one point. To an actress who visits him, Merrick comments: "You must display yourself for your living then. Like I did."

Director Scott Ellis has a supporting cast that is more than up to the challenge.

Alessandro Nivola plays Dr. Frederick Treves, Merrick's doctor and chief defender, with a coiled Victorian intensity and a hint of menace. Patricia Clarkson as the admiring Mrs. Kendal is the opposite - warm and feminine, with a wise wit.

Anthony Heald in the dual roles of Merrick's carnival owner and later Bishop Walsham How, manages to keep both characters' exploitative needs barely under the surface. It is he who notices that the common men who paid money to stare at a freak are not much different from the rich who now enjoy being around Merrick. "Difference now is you ain't charging for it," he says.

Pomerance's play puts Merrick in the middle of a tug-of-war between science and religion. The Elephant Man becomes whatever the viewer wants. "I conclude that we have polished him like a mirror, and shout hallelujah when he reflects us to the inch," says his doctor.

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