THE ELEPHANT MAN, Voxershorts, at the Theatre Building. John Merrick still haunts us: what might he have become if the world had seen him accurately? Bernard Pomerance’s sleek, vigorous 90-minute play makes this former midway freak a barometer by which to measure all around him–including, by implication, the audience.

A Beauty and the Beast with no happy ending, John Swanbeck’s sardonic staging indicts the crippling Christian charity inflicted on Merrick by his keeper-physician Sir Frederick Treves, played by Rich Hutchman with almost excessive self-disgust. Ever the proper Victorian scientist, Treves is at ease with deformity but repelled by a comely nude; it takes a more evolved human, the actress Mrs. Kendal (played with warm grace by Roxanne Fay), to acknowledge Merrick’s humanity. Kurt Naebig as Merrick combines a twisted posture with a wistful childlike voice that seems severed from his body. Marvelously, Naebig can take an almost precious remark like “My head is big because it is full of dreams” and root it in Merrick’s torment.

Despite the garish sideshow banners of Becky Marshall’s set, Swanbeck’s revival (the play’s second in six months) seems swallowed by gloom. Its definitive impression is not of Merrick’s hidden nobility but of the unmotivated bitterness of Joe Van Slyke’s hospital administrator. In this dark retelling, it seems as if Treves and other do-gooders are punished beyond their crimes, or Merrick’s suffering. –Lawrence Bommer