Odd couples are the stuff comedies are made of.
And duos don't come stranger than the one in "Elling," an endearing but wearying play at the Barrymore Theatre.
The story follows two ex-asylum roommates. Elling (Denis O'Hare) is an uptight mama's boy, an agoraphobe with the heart of a poet. Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser) is an unkempt Neanderthal, a virgin who always craves sex and never changes his clothes.
A surly social worker (Jeremy Shamos) places the unlikely pals in a government-sponsored apartment to see if they can function in the real world. The real world quickly intrudes in the form of a famous old poet (Richard Easton) and a ripely pregnant neighbor (Jennifer Coolidge), who both could use some rehabilitation of their own.
The play -- adapted by Simon Bent from a Norwegian film, which was based on a novel by Ingvar Ambjørnsen -- is about finding your place and companions in the world.
It's a simple story, one well served by a stark production: just a few sticks of blond IKEA-style furniture, including two twin beds and a cupboard big enough for Elling to hide in when he's stressed.
O'Hare ("Take Me Out," "True Blood") uses his patented peculiar tics as Elling, such as speaking in a methodical clip. "Gods and Monsters" alum Fraser lets his demented side show in his vanity-free turn.
As directed by Doug Hughes, both stars at times push hard -- too hard -- for laughs. They're always playing a character.
In her few moments onstage, Coolidge ("Legally Blonde") shows how effortless comedy can be. Her body language and innate zaniness communicates everything that's necessary to make her funny and sympathetic.
"Elling" has charming moments, but in the end, the best word to describe it is "weird." That would be be the case, even if Elling and Kjell didn't discreetly doff their underpants and exchange them. You don't see that every day.
Even the fiercest Palinite will succumb to the charms of Elling, a bent little love triangle between two middle-aged, mentally ill men and a mildly exasperated European welfare state. This gentle, subversively mellow comedy-of-quirks, adapted from a series of Norwegian novels that have already made multiple visits to the stage and screen (a movie version was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2002), follows the same ingratiating Oscar-and-Felix rhythms that dominate lots of roommate-story situations — with an important twist. The two men in question aren’t merely odd. They’re government wards, released from an institution and fighting to retain a subsidized apartment by proving they can maintain a bare minimum of normalcy: leaving the house, using the telephone, buying a meal. “I’m in a state of mourning,” explains prickly shut-in and self-described “mamma’s boy” Elling (Denis O’Hare), whose mother has died nearly three years prior, taking his whole world with her. “I’m just in a state,” says his friend and cohab, the sweet behemoth Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser), whose life is defined entirely by meals and erections, both of which feel like infinitely renewable miracles. These two are in a state, all right — and, lucky for them, it’s Scandinavian. “It’s the responsibility of parents to allow their children to grow up,” tuts their hepcat social worker, Frank (the flinty, funny Jeremy Shamos, here demonstrating consummate control as straight man and all-around quirk wrangler). (Full disclosure: Shamos is a friend and former collaborator of mine.) He’s summing up Elling’s stage whisper of a moral: Love can be tough and fair, and growing up, for an individual or a society, does not and cannot mean growing apart.
Fans of the film will find the stage adaptation a somewhat different animal. Director Doug Hughes and scenarist Scott Pask, recently escaped from the top-heavy topiary of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, translate wintry-literal downtown-Oslo grit into the spartan Ikea showroom that, onstage, always seems to signal moderate, modular avant-garde-ish-ness. (Apparently, Elling and Kjell Bjarne’s state-sponsored living arrangement — which Norwegians will recognize as a real-life, familiar social setting — must be rendered as highly experimental theater to be credible in tea-party America.) Simon Bent’s English adaptation has a crisp absurdist lyricism to it, and the acting has been stylized to match: As Elling, the magnificent O’Hare (Take Me Out, True Blood) once again proves himself the reigning basket case of the American stage, playing dazzling, perfectly articulated cadenzas of neurosis while balancing a contempt for all things contemporary on the point of his turned-up nose. Lines like “Mother did the shopping. I was in charge of ideology” sound custom-designed for O’Hare’s pinched, pitch-bending delivery, which he modulates for maximum fun: His voice is like an oboe played through a garden hose. It’s the sound of a highly cultivated repression, which is fitting enough: Elling is an arch-conservative by Scandinavian standards. Asked to “get a grip,” he snaps: “A grip of what? The modern world has left very little to take a grip of. Mother and I are in agreement that the Norwegian Labour Party was an excellent judge of right and wrong.” Mother is dead, of course, and the Party’s great mid-century social achievements are far behind it — the world’s gone to pot. All of which leaves Elling cowering in his apartment.
Luckily, he’s not alone in there: Kjell Bjarne, whose ogre-size appetites are mediated only by his equally engorged empathy, is Elling’s cosmic comic counterpoint. Fraser plays him big and loud, a kind of innocuous Lenny from Of Mice and Men, in a bold if somewhat insensate performance, which Hughes reins in just short of much-too-much. Fraser is not a precision instrument, but then, neither is Kjell Bjarne, who insists on going out to “meet chicks,” in the hopes of losing his vintage virginity. When he finds a drunken pregnant woman conveniently sprawled in their stairwell (Best in Show’s blowsy-brilliant Jennifer Coolidge, who kills in an array of smaller, stellar parts), it’s clear we’re assembling one of those traditionally nontraditional makeshift families that heartwarming comedies tend to attract. (The great Richard Easton rounds off the ensemble as a mysterious retired poet who takes on the father-starved Elling as a protégé.)
Elling has just enough edge to keep itself from falling into a sugar coma; the story’s already mild politics have been muted to a murmur in this adaptation. But its message about the relationship of a civil society (scaled back, perhaps, but still essentially progressive and humane) with the weird and irreducible individuals who constitute it — namely, that there needn’t be an apocalyptic showdown between the two — is nothing short of revolutionary in the current zero-sum political climate. Late in the play, Elling has reentered the world outside his apartment, even launching a career as a guerrilla poet who tucks his verse in supermarket sauerkraut packaging. Praised for his talent, he’s asked if “the Sauerkraut Poet” will ever reveal himself, go public, collect the dividend of recognition (meager though it may be). “No,” demurs Elling, “he must remain anonymous, remain who he is.” How refreshing: an anti-modern malcontent who finally comes out of his cave not brandishing an underwear bomb or a snake flag or Fox News contract ... but a poem. Maybe there’s hope for the social contract after all.
There's nothing quite like "Elling" on Broadway. Based on the Norwegian book and film of the same name, this Oslo-set play is about a pair of socially impaired men who learn to live on their own after two years in a mental institution.
In case you haven't guessed, it's a comedy.
If this wasn't incongruous enough, the leads are played by Denis O'Hare, a Tony winner for "Take Me Out" and now a vampire king on "True Blood," and Brendan Fraser, of "Furry Vengeance" and "The Mummy" fame.
While far from perfect, the show works often enough, not in spite of its hodgepodge appearance, but because of it.
Underneath its exotic pedigree, "Elling," adapted into English by Simon Bent, is a classic mismatched-pair story. Teaming O'Hare and Fraser was a good move -- though I suspect their onstage chemistry will improve some more with time.
Elling (O'Hare) is a narrow, neat and tightly wound little martinet. A good head taller, unshaven and pot-bellied, Kjell Bjarne (Fraser) is the epitome of the big, lovable lug.
The two of them were roommates in the "nuthouse," and their unlikely partnership continues after they get out. Since we're in a country with a humane health-care system, the Norwegian state provides the men with a no-nonsense social worker, Frank Asli (the ever-reliable Jeremy Shamos), and an apartment -- bargain-basement set courtesy of Scott Pask. The idea is to help our misfit boys "return to reality."
For Kjell Bjarne, a simple-minded 40-year-old virgin with dubious hygiene, the process involves falling in love with pregnant neighbor Reidun (Jennifer Coolidge, the buxom blonde best known for deceptively smart supporting turns in "Legally Blonde" and "Best in Show"). Meanwhile, Elling -- an anal-retentive "mommy's boy" who lived with his mother until well into middle age, when she died -- makes a new pal (Richard Easton) and discovers a gift for writing poetry.
Elling and Kjell Barne's friendship grows stronger, too, despite their radically different personalities and perspectives. "We only live once," Kjell Bjarne declares with his usual optimism. "I hope so," Elling shoots back. "The concept of reincarnation has been troubling me."
Regrettably, the show lacks the joyful warmth of the 2001 film. And after his dismal "Mrs. Warren's Profession," director Doug Hughes confirms that he has little flair for comedy, half-wasting some of the best jokes.
Still, the play's extra-dry, non-sentimental Scandinavian humor saves it from "Rain Man"-meets-"The Odd Couple" cheap quirkiness.
Like its characters, "Elling" doesn't quite fit in its natural environment, but it has a modest, oddball charm.
One is an almost-40-year-old virgin, understandably obsessed with sex but not particularly fond of bathing. The other is a proud mama’s boy who does not see the point in leaving the apartment — ever. Both are Norwegian and nutty as fruitcakes.
Meet the newest odd couple to scamper and squabble around a Broadway stage, in the comedy “Elling,” which opened Sunday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater starring Brendan Fraser as the woman-crazed “orangutan,” in the words of his best pal, and Denis O’Hare as the milquetoast mother-lover afraid of life.
Fitfully funny, thanks primarily to the energetic efforts of Mr. O’Hare, but mostly just a puzzling fizzle, “Elling” was adapted by the British playwright Simon Bent from the novels by Ingvar Ambjornsen and the Norwegian movie and stage versions written by Axel Hellstenius and Petter Naess.
The cross-cultural trek from the Norwegian page to the Broadway stage appears to have offered ample opportunity for delicacies of style to get lost in translation. What is crucially missing from Mr. Bent’s adaptation are the gentle humanity and sly, understated humor of the movie version, an Oscar nominee for best foreign film in 2002. In their place are the broad, creaking mechanics of the stage sitcom, professionally if unsubtly delivered by a talented but ill-served cast under the workmanlike direction of Doug Hughes.
Elling (Mr. O’Hare) and Kjell Bjarne (Mr. Fraser) meet cute in a mental institution, where they share adjacent beds for two years, establishing a firm if unspoken bond despite their inimical personalities: Elling all refinement and exposed nerves, Kjell Bjarne a sweet-tempered but clueless galoot.
The play’s action begins as they are being gently pushed back into the world. The Norwegian authorities have arranged for the pair to share an apartment in Oslo, presumably in the hope that the more sophisticated but anxious Elling will supervise the behavior of the oafish naïf Kjell Bjarne, and the outgoing Kjell Bjarne will coax his friend out the front door. Supervising their emergence is Frank Asli (Jeremy Shamos), a social worker who offers stern training in the basic business of living: ordering pizza, answering the telephone, buying groceries.
Things do not go well at first. Elling all but turns to jelly in panic on his first trip to the corner store, and Kjell Bjarne rings up a fortune in phone sex charges. But these mismatched misfits have soon acquired new friends who test their loyalty to each other. Kjell Bjarne strikes up a tentative romance with a neighbor upstairs (the appealingly quirky Jennifer Coolidge, in the best of several small roles), while Elling shares his burgeoning efforts at writing poetry with a pal (Richard Easton, nicely elegiac) who turns out to be one of the country’s leading versifiers.
Mr. O’Hare, the gifted comic actor who won a Tony award for his exuberant performance in “Take Me Out,” is well cast as the finicky, hypersensitive Elling. He makes an inspired bit of physical comedy from Elling’s anguished concentration on the simple act of walking in public in a state of high anxiety. Mr. O’Hare also excavates plenty of laughs from his phrasing of Elling’s ornate, fussy language and his outbursts of peevish anger at Frank, who is both the irksome holder of power over Elling and Kjell Bjarne’s future and a symbol of the carefree normalcy that Elling finds it impossible to emulate.
Mr. Fraser less persuasively inhabits the dopey geniality and unrestrained coarseness of Kjell Bjarne, despite leaving his mouth agape for long stretches and walking with a shambling, galumphing gait. He has far less felicitous material for comedy, in any case; Kjell Bjarne’s signature joke is the exclamation of a familiar vulgarity that isn’t particularly funny the first time around and is repeated to increasingly witless effect.
The indelicacy of the production, performed on a generic set by Scott Pask, is not exclusively — perhaps even primarily — the fault of the actors or Mr. Hughes. As written, the stage personas of both Elling and Kjell Bjarne are devoid of the tender truthfulness of the characters in the film. In place of their almost childlike awkwardness and disorientation in the bustling world are the caricatured eccentricities of wacky regulars on television comedies.
The more loquacious Elling of Mr. Bent’s adaptation is so ready with an acerbic quip that he is scarcely credible as a creature who has lived under mom’s apron for most of his adult life. And the stage Kjell Bjarne exudes none of the appealing innocence that tempers some of the tastelessness of his sexual obsession.
Moments that land softly in the film are overwritten and elaborated until the humor and heart are all but stamped out of them. In the movie, for example, Frank gives the men the happy news that in their new home they will each have a bedroom. A few shots later we see them moving Elling’s bed into Kjell Bjarne’s room: a wry and touching indication of the fear and discomfort they share in their strange new surroundings. Onstage the same bit is expressed in much jokey dialogue that doesn’t so much belabor the emotional point as obscure it entirely. Elling’s mortal terror of the telephone likewise becomes an occasion for shtick rather than a telling illustration of his alienation from the fundamentals of daily living.
It’s probably true that a more restrained approach to the material would be impossible to put across successfully in a large theater, at least in the vulgarized context of today’s Broadway. But it is hard to see the point of translating this story to the stage if you have to distort or disregard the qualities that make it fresh.
Magnified on a curtain that fronts the stage is an observation that Elling made to himself in the movie, but is voiced by the famous poet character here. “How different people are,” it reads. “Some people ski solo to the North Pole, while some have to summon the courage to cross a restaurant floor.”
As the Broadway production of “Elling” unhappily proves, the same fictional people in different aesthetic contexts can also prove to have oddly divergent personalities. The Elling and Kjell Bjarne who prove such moving, gently amusing company in the movie are rendered overbearing and charmless onstage.
Elling" looks like a hard sell for Broadway. Simon Bent's stage adaptation of Norwegian author Ingvar Ambjornsen's cult novels about two former mental patients adjusting to life in the "normal" world was rumored to have had a certain gentle, wistful charm in its London production. (The 2002 film version was up for a foreign-language film Oscar.) But as dumbed down for American auds (why do they keep doing this to us?), this queasy-making comedy is so broadly played, by a cast headlined by Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser, it's close to sitcom. Call it "Friends With Mental Issues."
When first met, the anxiety-riddled Elling (O'Hare) and goofy giant Kjell (Fraser) are roommates in a Norwegian institution they aren't shy about calling "the nuthouse." Since scribe Bent is vague about the medical particulars, both thesps are obliged to broadcast their characters' mental limitations in blunt behavioral terms.
Elling, a sensitive "Mommy's boy" who took to sleeping in the wardrobe after his mother died, is so non-functional he can barely peel a hard-boiled egg. With his wiry frame and intense expression of perpetual anxiety, O'Hare is shrewdly cast as this would-be poet, but the manic tone of the production limits this fine actor's ability to show us how painful it must be to actually live in Elling's skin.
The childish Kjell is a much simpler character, largely defined by his gargantuan appetites, including an unfulfilled sex drive that would be frightening if it weren't strongly sweetened and played for laughs. Relating to the essential innocence of this big, clumsy baby, Fraser gives his all to the part and seems not to mind that it's actually a cruel caricature.
Even after two years in the nuthouse, this unconventional odd couple seems incapable of functioning off the institutional leash. But a cheery social worker, Frank (Jeremy Shamos, dependably sane), is determined to install them in a halfway house in Oslo.
So, it's off they go to the big city, still without any observable survival skills, where they find themselves in another vast, empty room in an even scarier environment. While it's possible to interpret these soulless surroundings as symbolic of how lost these two misfits must feel in the big, wide world, Scott Pask's spare set and Kenneth Posner's severe lighting are more of a visual giveaway of how ill suited this intimate show is to a big Broadway house.
Helmer Doug Hughes mines all the humor he can from the friends' terrifying learning experiences in fending for themselves. Elling nearly starves to death before he can bring himself to go out for food, and Kjell seems unable to master the basic skill of changing one's underpants.
But once the roommates work up their courage and begin to interact with other people, the play reveals more relaxed, genuine charms. The ever-exuberant Kjell hurls himself into a boisterous courtship of a big-hearted and hugely pregnant neighbor named Reidun (a Nordic Amazon, in Jennifer Coolidge's generous perf). Elling, who has been scribbling his thoughts into a journal all the while, makes the acquaintance of the eccentric Alfons, a famous poet-recluse who brings light and air and honest laughter into the play, through Richard Easton's wonderful perf.
Have Elling and Kjell become "normal?" Or is the "normal" world as nutty as they are? Honestly, it doesn't bear thinking about.
In theory, any play can be good. I've been surprised time and again by the excellence of shows that I expected to be awful. Sometimes, though, a show turns out to be fully as bad as I was expecting, a fact that usually becomes evident shortly after the curtain rises. My preliminary expectations about Simon Bent's "Elling" can be summed up as follows: Why would any American producer in his right mind choose to put money into a British stage play adapted from a Norwegian film based on a series of allegedly comic novels about two mentally ill men, one prim and
fussy and the other loud and sloppy? What good could come of so patently misguided an investment? None whatsoever, I regret to say: "Elling" is relentlessly sentimental and comprehensively unfunny, so much so that I had to struggle to stay awake all the way to the bitter end.
I may well be underestimating the potency of Norwegian humor, for which I humbly apologize in advance. That said, the premise of "Elling," in which the title character (Denis O'Hare) and his roommate Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser) are transferred from an insane asylum to a halfway house in order to adjust to life in the outside world, strikes me as…well, not very funny. Not knowing the novels by Ingvar Ambjornsen on which "Elling" is based, I can't say anything about their theatrical potential, but it strikes me that Mr. Bent has turned them into a rigidly commercial comedy that plays like a cross between "The Odd Couple" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," with a bit of "Waiting for Godot" thrown in to confuse the issue.
You can probably figure most of the rest out for yourself without any additional information. Yes, Elling and Kjell are crazy-but-not-too-crazy; yes, they manage to find love and friendship; yes, their misadventures prove that madness, far from being cruelly incapacitating, is mostly in the eye of the beholder.
This is Mr. Fraser's Broadway debut, and given the fact that his film career has been in the doldrums for the better part of a decade, one could guess what he was thinking when he agreed to appear in "Elling" as the noisy slob. In Hollywood it is a truth universally acknowledged that playing a character with a handicap is a sure-fire way to get taken more seriously. Alas, that's not how it works on Broadway, where the critics expect rather more from celebrity debutants. Mr. Fraser is, or can be, an accomplished film actor—he was quite good as Ian McKellen's innocent foil in "Gods and Monsters"—but his one-dimensional performance here is both unvaried and unmemorable.
Mr. O'Hare, who has been paying the rent by playing a vampire in HBO's "True Blood," is a veteran stage actor with a long and impressive list of credits, and I suspect that the once-over-lightly predictability of his acting has more to do with the deficiencies of the script than with his considerable gifts. Likewise Jennifer Coolidge, who has been much funnier in her film appearances than she is in any of her four roles in "Elling." As for Richard Easton, cast here as a superannuated poet who takes an interest in Elling and his roommate, he is one of Broadway's most admired character actors, and I'm damned if I know what he's doing in so lame a show as this. I hope he got his price.
Doug Hughes, lately of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" and "Oleanna," has staged "Elling" with inscrutable professionalism. The result is a production that rolls smoothly from scene to scene without taking you anywhere in particular or causing anything noteworthy to happen along the way.