'Elling': Theater Review
There are a handful of quiet moments to savor in 'Elling,' the closing notes of which understate rather than force the tentative embrace of the real world by the play's barely functioning characters. But the delicate charms of Peter Naess' 2001 Norwegian screen comedy are more often coarsened and diluted in this strident stage adaptation.
The movie was part of a small wave of festival discoveries around that time, which notably included fellow Norwegian director Bent Hamer's Eggs and Kitchen Stories. In their gentle humor and eccentricity, the films departed from generalized perceptions of Scandinavian severity, particularly following all the blunt provocation of the Lars von Trier-led Dogme 95 movement.
Based on the novels of Ingvar Ambjornsen and adapted for stage and screen by Alex Hellstenius with Naess, the play was retooled in English by Simon Bent for a well-received 2007 West End run.
Its mishandling in the trans-Atlantic crossing echoes that of another Scandinavian screen-to-stage vehicle, Festen, based on Thomas Vinterberg's 1998 film released in the U.S. as The Celebration. On the London stage the drama about a family's murky secrets had an intoxicating nastiness; on Broadway it was turgid melodrama. Perhaps it's something about the British vs. American affinity for Nordic material.
There's an unassuming visual simplicity to the Broadway production of Elling. Scott Pask's austere set, a bare room with minimal blond-wood furniture, is decorated only by the descriptive strokes of Kenneth Posner's lighting. But elsewhere, director Doug Hughes leans aggressively on the quirks. The same goes for the actors, who play their oddball roles as sitcommy caricatures.
Obsessive-compulsive misanthrope Elling (Denis O'Hare) and hulking, almost-40-year-old virgin Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser) graduate from a mental institution to shared state housing with instructions from their social worker (Jeremy Shamos) to get out amongst the living. The scenario makes a wry pamphlet for universal healthcare.
Elling's near-agoraphobic reluctance and Kjell Bjarne's puppy-dog dependency on him make the odd couple's reintegration no easy matter. But gradually both societal misfits begin to take hesitant steps, Elling through his acquaintance with a poet (Richard Easton) who has lost his muse, and Kjell Bjarne via a nervous romance with the pregnant woman who lives upstairs (Jennifer Coolidge).
O'Hare — last seen cradling his dead lover's bloody remains in a crystal chalice and ripping the spine out of a TV anchorman on True Blood — displays his usual accomplished technique as the tightly wound fussbudget Elling. But he's all twitches and vocal tics; there's not enough anchoring vulnerability to his bristling oddball energy.
Fraser's paunchy, loose-limbed goofiness is endearing, but while it's clearly part of his over-excitable characterization, the choice to bellow every line wears thin. Coolidge is also likable but doesn't stretch far from the daffy, stoned sweetness of her movie roles.
All three lead actors have amusing moments, especially O'Hare with his acerbic deadpan. But overall, the comedy feels strained. Everything is pitched so loud that nuances of character and emotional underpinnings get lost, which draws attention to the play's fragile dramatic trajectory.
Like David Mamet's A Life in the Theater this season, which is closing early due to underwhelming business, there's a sense here of a small play swimming on a Broadway stage and struggling to project to a large house.
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Denis O'Hare, Jennifer Coolidge, Richard Easton, Jeremy Shamos
Playwright: Axel Hellstenius, in collaboration with Petter Naess, based on the novels by Ingvar Ambjornsen; new English adaptation by Simon Bent
Director: Doug Hughes
Set designer: Scott Pask
Costume designer: Catherine Zuber
Lighting designer: Kenneth Posne
Sound designer-music: David Van Tieghem
Presented by Howard Panter for Ambassador Theatre Group; Robert G. Bartner; Bill Kenwright; John O'Boyle; Deborah Taylor; Burnt Umber; Finola Dwyer; Elling Ellingsen and Magnus Karlsen; Bill Ballard/David Mirvish; Ronnie Planalp; Toledo Prods.; Lorenzo Thione; Jay Kuo; Harris Karma Prods.; Jayne Baron Sherman; Robert Driemeyer; Cameron/Mathieu; Dodger Theatricals, in association with Bob Boyett