THE ELEPHANT MAN by Bernard Pomerance, directed by Robin Phillips (Canadian Stage). To November 3. Bluma Appel (27 Front East). $20-$56. 416-368-3110, www.canstage.com. Rating: NN
A bald actor in David French's Jitters famously boasts, "I can act hair." In The Elephant Man, beautiful Brent Carver has to act ugly, and he does that in amazing ways.
Unfortunately, Bernard Pomerance's 1977 portrait of Joseph (aka John) Merrick, the man who suffered from Proteus syndrome, which rendered him deformed and painfully marginalized, is weirdly flat.
The play tracks the relationship between Merrick and physician Frederick Treves (Geraint Wyn Davies), who rescues him from a freak circus and puts him up in a hospital, where Merrick becomes the darling of high society.
The premise is terrific - and even more meaningful at a time when our own celebrity obsession is out of control. But there are only a few speeches that crackle. The rest of the play is ho-hum agitprop.
The production doesn't help. Director Robin Phillips's typically antiseptic style - every movement seems too consciously stylized - on a set of sleek blacks and whites is all wrong for late 18th-century England, where the streets were teeming with filth, blood and guts.
And why are most of the actors shouting their lines as if declaiming from the rooftops?
Still, Carver is sensational. Pomerance gave explicit instructions that there be no cheating: Merrick can't be slathered in makeup to convey his hideousness. So it's all up to Carver.
The scene in which his body metamorphosizes as Treves describes the disease's physical effects (one of the quartet of decent speeches) shows awesome technique. At the end of Act I, when he's just been touched by a woman and sobs with frustration, all snot and deformity, he has us right in his clutches.
It may be the performance of the season, but even a knockout performance can't save a bad production of a so-so play.