Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - November 21, 2010
Elling New English Adaptation by Simon Bent. Based on the novels by Ingvar Ambjørnsen. Stage and Film Adaptation by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss. Directed by Doug Hughes. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by Catherine Zuber. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Original music & sound design by David Van Tieghem. Hair & wig Design by Tom Watson. Cast: Brendan Fraser, Denis OHare, with Jennifer Coolidge, Richard Easton, Jeremy Shamos.
Lets be fair to the writers, actors, and producers of sitcoms, and not press the point further. But for those who lament Broadways slow creep around the cable box, for its plots, personalities, and presentations alike, Elling is a prime example of what is so often wrong with the Broadway play today. Its not that its not entertaining, although its not. And its not that its insulting, although it is. Its just that its so flabby, flimsy, and undercooked that even most four-star sushi restaurants would balk at it. Despite the participation of top-notch talent onstage (the cast is led by Denis OHare and Brendan Fraser) and off (the director is Doug Hughes), its notable for not much more than its near-complete lack of humor and complete lack of humanity.
One would expect that quality to be the sole gimme of this enterprise. Simon Bents play, which is based on Axel Hellstenius and Petter Næsss Oscar-nominated 2001 film adaptation of Norwegian author Ingvar Ambjørnsens series of novels, would seem ideal for exploring the unusual but enduring friendship of Elling (the neurotic) and Kjell Bjarne (the prehistoric) as they move into a tiny Oslo apartment and try to lead normal lives. Battling their inner demons while striving to expand their horizons beyond arms reach is a notion that translates naturally to the stage, and could make even more personal and affecting the films exploration of what it means to not just survive but thrive in the modern world.
That does not happen here. As OHare and Fraser respectively play them, Elling and Kjell arent men worth knowing, but caricatures worth exploding. And explode they do, as for two hours these two sometimes-fine performers and their usually reliable director mine the already fragile writing for every stereotype and one-dimensional thought and then deliver them all with a clarion gusto. In the end, youre not so much charmed as you are steamrolledand by the time the play has concluded, you havent learned anything of worth about Elling or Kjell individually, their unique relationship, or for that matter yourself. A thoughtful premise has been transformed into junk-food theatre of such startling intensity, nearby McDonalds and Burger Kings should fear for their financial well-being.
OHare, Fraser, and Hughes have not made Elling and Kjell into men who are in any way likeablewhich is a major problem in a play that depends on nothing else. Neither actor has properly modulated his established persona to make the everyday extraordinary: OHare can be electric in controlled-crazy roles, like his Tony-winning turn as the baseball-loving accountant in Take Me Out, but crumples like a sheet of paper when his characters are not required to maintain some appearance of normality. Fraser is a guy-next-door type who permanently carries an air of goofy affability, and when forced to stray too from it is grating instead of ingratiating.
From our first meeting of the pair bickering between asylum bunks, to their final scenes embracing life at its most decadent and irresponsible, these are characters to be endured, not be found endearing. OHare clutches his composition notebook to his chest and barks its contents like a two-year-old with a new toy, and his first-half curtain moment is a literal temper tantrum of but vague consequencebut hes given us no reason to believe Ellings is a soul worth saving. Fraser looks as if hes had toothpicks surgically inserted in his eyes, so bulging are they at every moment, and he blares every line with an excited half-whine that sounds like mechanical eagerness disconnected from any tangible desire.
Jeremy Shamos, as the duos well-meaning but easily annoyed young case worker, and Richard Easton, as the reclusive poet Elling befriends, come much closer to crystallization, those their stage time is drastically less. The most successful performance overall comes from Jennifer Coolidge, who plays all the women in Elling and Kjells lives. She elicits surprising amounts of laughs from the banality around her; one bit, in which she must stand onstage and simply pour a glass of water, is an unexpected comic triumph. From a disciplinarian nurse to a sultry waitress to the mom upstairs girl Kjell eventually falls for, she finds the only satisfying balance between earnestness and silliness in a world that often cant tell the two apart.
That sort of wacky realism is likely what Hughes was going for throughout, and certainly what is suggested by Scott Pasks hollow, utilitarian set, Catherine Zubers unpredictable bland-meets-boisterous costumes, and Kenneth Posners daydream lighting. But without an anchor to emotional fact, it barely comes across. The nut of the story, as with a number of successful sitcoms over the past couple of decades, is how these two adult men finally learn to grow up. But Elling itself, at least in the hands of OHare, Hughes, and Fraser, just feels childish and naïve.