THE ELEPHANT MAN by Bernard Pomerance. Directed by Jack Hofsiss; setting by David Jenkins; costumes by Julie Weiss; lighting by Beverly Emmons.

With Philip Anglim, Penny Fuller, Ken Ruta, Richard Neilson, Jeffrey Jones, Etain O'Malley, Michael O. Smith and Danny Sewell. Cellist: David Heins.

At the Eisenhower Theater through April 5.

The "Elephant Man" backlash has set in.

A few weeks ago, I heard from a playwright who had just been through a trying professional experience. "I'm sorry they didn't like my play," he said, "but I won't write the kind of plays they want. I won't write 'The Elephant man'."

He was implying that the world deserves something better from the theater than -- this was his thought, not mine -- a simple heart-warming, affirmative statement. He was also implying that he might be just a trifle jealous.

Non-playwrights will probably have an easier time with the play that opened at the Eisenhower Theater last night -- a play that is jammed to the brim with exciting theatrical and intellectual matter, and comes to Washington in an even sharper production than the one that was last season's hottest Broadway ticket.

Written by Bernard Pomerance, an American who lives in England, "The Elephant Man" chronicles the adult life of John Merrick, a grossly deformed victim of neurofibromatosis. After touring England and the continent as a sideshow attraction in the 1880s, Merrick was rescued and introduced to London society by a Christian-minded surgeon, Fredrick Treves. He proved to be an intelligent man -- with an "acute sensibility and, worse for him, a romantic imagination," as the Treves of the play describes him -- and lived out the last four years of his life as a celebrity resident of the London Hospital. He died in 1890.

On stage, as in life, Merrick is an inspiration to everyone who encounters him. Despite every excuse to look on life and the world as squalid and unfair, he exhibits a natural sense of charity and eye for beauty that make him a laboratory demonstration of the presence of these qualtities in all of us.

When the sympathetic hospital administrator fires two orderlies for gawking, Merrick quietly points out that "If all that'd stared at me'd been sacked, there'd be whole towns out of work."

In style, Pomerance's play is an unusual mix of realism and fancy. Some of its scenes are like illustrated lectures, and one, in which Treves describes Merrick and his deformities to the accompaniment of slides, is exactly that. But there are also scenes of sheer, unapologetic theatricality, like the one in which Merrick meets Mrs. Kendal, the actress recruited to expose him to womankind.

Here we have a case study in the awkward business of trying to meet unpleasantness with a smile. And Penny Fuller, as Mrs. Kendall, prepares for her ordeal with the intensity of a weightlifter getting ready to go for a record lift. Even during her encounter with Merrick -- a creature so horrible that he has sent a whole procession of nurses screaming from his room -- she must avert her eyes from time to time and tap new wells of inner strength.

Fuller is one of the reasons this "Elephant Man" seems superior to the New York production. Whether she saw Carole Shelley's performance in New York or merely acquired an impression of it through the filtering medium of director Jack Hofsiss, she has built on many of the things Shelley did, while doing away with a few of Shelley's mannerisms. The rewards are especially marked when mannerisms would be especially wrong, as Mrs. Kendal comes to see Merrick as a friend rather than an incident in the line of duty.

Ken Ruta, who gives a marvelously clean and simple performance, is the other reason for the improvement. Unlike Kevin Conway, who played Treves in New York, Ruta has the dutiful air of a Victorian gentleman. But beyond some natural advantages of voice, face and form, he has developed the tension of the role -- a tension between the Christian principles Treves dispenses to Merrick and the innocent wisdom Merrick fires back -- far more fully.

There is one non-change in the cast, and it is the right one. Philip Anglim, the thoroughly normal-looking actor who started out as Merrick two years ago in a church basement, is still at it, still twisting his limbs and his vocal chords into a gentle, funny, absorbing performance. It is hard to imagine an actor plunging more recklessly into a part, but there is also calculation and artifice in Anglim's work. He is, for one thing, practical-minded enough that the voice and gestures seem to speed up and grow normal as the play advances, as a way of compensating for the audience's gradual acceptance and immersion.

This is the kind of role actors would kill for, if they still killed for roles. But it is mildly refreshing, even so, to see a star -- even a newly established one -- stick with a play this long.

Merrick's story, for overlapping reasons, is the kind of material writers too, would kill for.

So many and varied are the dramatic possibilities in his material that Pomerance writes with the grab-bag zeal of a kid who has just seen what's under the Christmas tree. In the second act, after the thematic territory has been mapped out, he sometimes grabs too quickly and in too many directions -- coming up, for example, with a ponderously ironic scene in which Traves and Merrick reverse roles and the patient describes the moral ailment of his doctor.

But some of Pomerance's longest leaps are also his most graceful.

"If I had been Romeo," he has Merrick say to Mrs. Kendal, "guess what?" She has no idea (except for the somewhat irrelevant observation that, as a rule, "Romeos are undependable.") So Merrick proceeds to explain. In Romeo's shoes, he says, he would never have committed suicide after so perfunctory a test of Juliet's death-like condition as holding a mirror to her breath.

Romeo clearly doesn't care about Juliet, but only about himself, is Merrick's arguement.

"Does he take her pulse?" he asks. "Does he get a doctor . . . If I had been Romeo, we would have got away."