With its first production, Bernard Pomerance's "The Elephant Man," the newly formed East Side Productions hasn't exactly delivered a mouse. But it isn't bringing to this Tony-winning drama anything more than the sort of modest competency you find in most community theaters.
For a group that has mobilized a number of local investors at $1,000 a shot, opened up a new performing space (The Market Five Gallery on Capitol Hill) and advertised itself as "Washington's own new commercial production company," the results are inconclusive, at the very best.
Pomerance's play recounts in 21 Brechtian-flavored scenes the bizarre life and death of John Merrick, a sideshow oddity who became the darling of Victorian England. There is, I'm beginning to suspect, more theatricality than profundity in the script. While the contrast of Merrick's monstrous appearance and his sweet, childlike soul is affecting, Pomerance's attempts to dismantle the smug tenets of Victorian society, its belief in the perfectability of man and its faith in the forward march of science, are less compelling. "The Elephant Man" often strikes significant poses it ultimately fails to justify.
Nonetheless, it does offer actors some outsized opportunities to shine. The role of Merrick is an immediate attention-grabber, if only because it eschews the ploys of makeup. The grotesqueries of his being are suggested through subtle distortions of speech and body, and that is the kind of acting everyone can see. Unfortunately, with his mop of flaxen hair, his chubby face and the petulance of his delivery, Joseph P. Normile also manages to suggest that Merrick has a certain kinship with Dennis the Menace.
Anne Stone has always been an "actressy" performer, which makes her initially right for the role of Mrs. Kendall, the celebrated actress who was engaged to help in the socialization of Merrick, precisely because she could hide her true feelings. As long as she is playing at magnanimity and grace, Stone is fine. But the script calls for her to get caught in the game, to discover real emotion for this benighted creature, and Stone can't quite make the transition convincing.
The strongest presence in the cast is that of Martin Goldsmith, as the doctor who rescues Merrick from sideshow exploitation, polishes him up into a parody of the Victorian gentleman, and then recognizes the cosmic futility of his task. Goldsmith is a journeyman actor, perhaps, but his honesty is laudable.
John Jacobsen's direction is workmanlike, more a product of hard-nosed application than real inspiration and unable to lift the supporting cast out of the rut of adequacy. While the high-vaulted Market Five Gallery is not exactly the most hospitable of locales, filling it with such a toweringly shabby set is hardly the best way around the problem. In all, this is an "Elephant Man" of no particular merit on one hand and no excessive flaws on the other. It is one of those gray, in-between shows. As such, it leaves the future of East Side productions dangling--not all that tantalizingly--in space.
THE ELEPHANT MAN. By Bernard Pomerance. Directed by John Jacobsen. Set, Tom Zeigler; lighting, Lewis Folden; costumes, Henry Shaffer. With Martin Goldsmith, Anne Stone, Joseph P. Normile, T. J. Edwards, J.E. Michael. At the Market Five Gallery through May 8.