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In Nordic odd-couple comedy ‘Elling,’ Oslo meets Broadway

Dennis King Published: November 23, 2010

Update: Despite original plans to run through March, “Elling” has closed on Broadway. According to the Associated Press, the final curtain came down on the play Sunday after just 22 previews and nine regular performances.
Although elements of the play were widely praised by critics, producers said ticket sales were far below projections and the production was finally considered too intimate for a big Broadway theater. – DK

BY DENNIS KING

NEW YORK – Transport Felix Unger and Oscar Madison to the Nordic climes of Oslo and you get a fair picture of the affectionately bickering dynamic of “Elling,” a new play on Broadway drawn from Norway’s 2002 nominee for best foreign film Oscar.

Denis O'Hare, Brendan Fraser
Denis O'Hare, Brendan Fraser

The play, which opened Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, features Hollywood mainstay Brendan Fraser (“Crash,” “Gods and Monsters”) in his Broadway debut and Tony Award winner Denis O’Hare (“Take Me Out”) in a gentle, free-spirited Odd Couple tale that follows the film’s narrative faithfully. (Actually, the film was based on a series of popular novels by Ingvar Ambjornsen, which were later adapted for stage and screen by Axel Hellstenius.)

Broadway’s version of “Elling” was first produced in London, where it won an Olivier nomination for best comedy. In its trans-Atlantic transfer it is directed by Tony-winner Doug Hughes (“The Royal Family,” “Doubt”) from a play script by Simon Bent.

Set in contemporary Oslo, a bustling city of brisk efficiency, the story introduces us to the finicky title character, Elling (played with fragile precision by O’Hare). He’s an uptight mama’s boy who has lived a sheltered life and is now in his 40s, petrified to cross the street, answer the telephone, shop for groceries or perform any of the basic necessities.

Placed in a clean, well-run government mental ward after his mother’s death, the obsessive, compulsively shy Elling finds himself sharing a room with the loutish Kjell Bjarne (Fraser in a shambling, skillful and big-hearted turn). Raised on a pig farm by his unloving stepfather, Kjell is a brooding “orangutan” of a man who forgets to bathe or change his underwear for weeks at a time and is given to fits of head-banging violence.

Soon enough, these two friendless oddballs form a tentative bond against a cold, cruel world – the virginal, sex-obsessed Kjell reveling in Elling’s made-up tales of roguish derring-do; the meek and fearful Elling taking some comfort in Kjell’s stolid decency and his guileless demeanor as “one of life’s simpler apostles.”

Their friendship is solidified when counselors decide to transfer Elling and Kjell to a state-subsidized apartment in Oslo, where a pragmatic but friendly social worker (Jeremy Shamos) is assigned to oversee their adjustment to independent living.

In timid baby steps, the two men venture out into the crowded, busy city – battling their compulsions and phobias in comic skirmishes that sometimes have them fleeing back to their apartment in terror. In one particularly amusing sequence, Elling is schooled by his stern social worker in the niceties of answering the telephone, an odious, frightening task that Elling balks at in abject horror.

Denis O'Hare, Brendan Fraser, Jennifer Coolidge
Denis O'Hare, Brendan Fraser, Jennifer Coolidge

But, gradually, painfully, Elling and Kjell each find their footing in the real world. Kjell’s revelation comes when their pregnant neighbor, Reidun (a lovably ditzy Jennifer Coolidge), passes out drunk one day on the stairs. Kjell gallantly carries her to his apartment and is quickly smitten. Before long, romance blossoms and Elling feels pangs of jealousy as his only friend starts mooning after this strange, big-bellied single woman.

For Elling, epiphany comes in a flood of words, when he suddenly realizes that he’s a poet at heart. Before long, he’s venturing out to attend a local poetry reading, and there he meets an elderly, lyrical gentleman, Alfons (Richard Easton), himself a renowned poet of the intelligentsia.

Inspired and emboldened, Elling concocts a secret plan to leave his mark on the world – a whimsical scheme involving furtively scribbled verse, frozen foods and a clandestine identity as “The Sauerkraut Poet.”

With simple staging and a skillful cast that enacts the whimsical story with droll wit, unassuming warmth and richly observed humanity “Elling” makes the transition from screen to stage without losing any of its humble charm. In fact, it succeeds marvelously in maintaining the story’s abiding sense of hope, faith and healing humor and striking a mellow grace note for dispossessed, disenfranchised and lonely underdogs everywhere.