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 O’Hare, with Jennifer Coolidge, Richard Easton, Jeremy Shamos.
Let’s be fair to the writers, actors, and producers of sitcoms, and not press the point further. But for those who lament Broadway’s 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. It’s not that it’s not entertaining, although it’s not. And it’s not that it’s insulting, although it is. It’s just that it’s 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 O’Hare and Brendan Fraser) and off (the director is Doug Hughes), it’s 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 Bent’s play, which is based on Axel Hellstenius and Petter Næss’s Oscar-nominated 2001 film adaptation of Norwegian author Ingvar Ambjørnsen’s 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 arm’s reach is a notion that translates naturally to the stage, and could make even more personal and affecting the film’s exploration of what it means to not just survive but thrive in the modern world.
That does not happen here. As O’Hare and Fraser respectively play them, Elling and Kjell aren’t 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, you’re not so much charmed as you are steamrolled — and by the time the play has concluded, you haven’t 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.
O’Hare, Fraser, and Hughes have not made Elling and Kjell into men who are in any way likeable — which 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: O’Hare 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. O’Hare 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 consequence — but he’s given us no reason to believe Elling’s is a soul worth saving. Fraser looks as if he’s 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 duo’s 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 Kjell’s 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 can’t tell the two apart.
That sort of wacky realism is likely what Hughes was going for throughout, and certainly what is suggested by Scott Pask’s hollow, utilitarian set, Catherine Zuber’s unpredictable bland-meets-boisterous costumes, and Kenneth Posner’s 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 O’Hare, Hughes, and Fraser, just feels childish and naďve.