The Elephant Man initially opened Off-Broadway in January 1979. In one of the first reviews, Jack Kroll contended that the play suffered from Pomerance’s ‘‘hard and heavy’’ morality, but ‘‘this is a minor fault, and in any case the entire Victorian does seem like an extravagant morality play on the stage of history.’’ Kroll concluded by saying that the ‘‘New York theatre is lucky to have The Elephant Man.’’
Edwin Wilson’s review in The Wall Street Journal lauded the actors and direction, which he felt made up for the play’s faults. Among the problems, Wilson asserted:
In the last few scenes of the play Pomerance abandons the hard-edged logic of the first part and chases philosophical phantoms, but through most of the evening his astute treatment of this unlikely subject makes The Elephant Man one of the best new plays of the season.
A similar sentiment is voiced by Christopher Sharp in his review for Women’s Wear Daily. Sharp asserted that the play ‘‘can compete with any other true artistic effort in the city. It reminds us of what New York theatre can become with a little courage and imagination.’’
Sharp also noted the strength of the performances, stating that ‘‘this is a work that deserves intelligent acting, and it gets it.’’ He concluded by calling the production ‘‘a delicious evening of theatre.’’
Within three months, The Elephant Man moved to Broadway with only small changes in the cast. Richard Elder of The New York Times noted that the play’s second act ‘‘has been tightened up’’ since it moved from Off-Broadway, but that some problems with this act remained.
In part, asserted Elder, this is because ‘‘many of the themes that are dramatized at the beginning remain to be expounded at the end.’’ In spite of these problems, Elder viewed Pomerance’s play as ‘‘an enthralling and luminous play.’’
Douglas Watt considered many of the same problems in his review for the Daily News, but he found that ‘‘Pomerance takes us to the very heart of this awesome, true, oft-repeated story.’’
Like other critics who reviewed The Elephant Man on its initial debut Off-Broadway, Clive Barnes maintained that Pomerance’s play brought a renewal to a mediocre New York theatre season.
Barnes deemed it a ‘‘wonderful, moving play,’’ heaping most of his praise on Pomerance’s writing, especially his treatment of themes and characterization.
In concluding his review, Barnes proclaimed that the Broadway production had ‘‘taken on a new dimension’’ and that ‘‘to see it is a great experience.’’
Dennis Cunningham declared that the ‘‘first act is the best first act on Broadway this year.’’ Yet he also found that the second act just restates what has been said in the first act. In spite of this ‘‘severe flaw,’’ Pomerance’s play was ‘‘the most extraordinary and moving play on Broadway.’’