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A CurtainUp Review

I have always been a mommy's boy. . .
— Elling in one of his secret notebook entries, about the intense "twoness" between him and his mother whose death sent him to an asylum where his— "room-mate is an orangutan /who cares only about women and food/One of life's simpler apostles/But I feel safe in some strange way/Having him by my side. "
Denis O'Hare & Brendan Fraser
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
A quirky little comedy about a Norwegian odd couple who journey from life in an asylum to being part of a normal society has landed on Broadway. Adapted by Axel Hellstenius and Petter Næss from Norwegian novelist Ingvar Ambjørnsen's four Blood Brothers novels, also known as the Elling books it was made into a cult foreign movie which is available at Netflix . A new translation for the stage by Simon Bent became an unlikely hit in London, transferring from the Bush Theater (London's equivalent of off-Broadway) to the West End where it was nominated for the Lawrence Olivier Award for Comedy of the Year. The London production's success notwithstanding, the 1950s Norwegian setting and the fact that Kjelland Elling are sharing a state sponsored apartment after years in an asylum, makes this an unlikely Broadway crowd pleaser — more apt to bring to mind the tragic George and Lennie of John Steinbeck's Mice and Men the Mutt and Jeff cartoon characters than Oscar and Felix of Neil Simon's laugh-a-minute The Odd Couple.

Elling may sound like and, in fact is, very un-Broadwayish and as directed by Dough Hughes probably tries too hard to make this small show feel like a big one. It may also be too quirky, foreign and lacking in action to translate easily into one of the season's hot tickets. In addition, those who are familiar with the movie (I confess I'm not), may have their own reservations about the screen to stage transition. Yet, Eling is both funny and touching and a chance to see some fine acting, especially Denis O'Hare in the title role.

Casting Brendan Fraser as the big, brawny, sloppy half this couple proves to be a smart move to cut the show's risks by drawing in the movie and TV goers (Fraser's entrance has been greeted with cheers and applause). Besides being the physical opposite of the diminutive O'Hare, Fraser, whose Broadway debut this is, acquits himself quite well.

O'Hare and Fraser are splendidly supported by a stellar group of actors to portray the various characters who figure in their quest for normalcy. But, as the title indicates, Elling is the play's driving force, as is O'Hare's portrait of the intense, neurotic mama's boy unable to function after his mother's death. His comic tics are something to see, as is his joy in realizing his ability to, as Kjeil puts it "commit poetry." Outstanding as O'Hare is, Fraser is not just a second banana. He manages to give the simplistic, unkempt and sex starved Kjeil a childlike naivete, that makes him quite endearing even though he should tone down the unrelenting shouting — a fine counterpoint to O'Hare's more tightly wound and intellectual Elling.

Director Doug Hughes neatly establishes what's involved in the journey on which Elling and Kjeil embark when they leave the asylum to attempt independent living with a scrim curtain resembling a page from Elling's notebook. It reads as follows: " How different people are. Some people ski solo to the North Pole-- while some have to summon all their courage to cross a restaurant floor." He uses that scrim again to wind up the second and better act with a wordless but potent image.

There's a lot of emotion that gets released during that journey but while the actors are encouraged to strain too hard to interpret the humor rather broadly, they don't succumb to excessive sentimentality. This is best exemplifed by the way they handle their preference to continue sharing a bedroom. Even though they've been given a 2-bedroom apartment, they pretend that they need a spare room.

The other characters contribute enormously to making Elling more than a less action-packed variation of the two-character road trip. Besides broadening its view of human condition, they add some nice comic touches.

Jennifer Coolidge takes on three of these characters: the play's only meanie, a Nurse Ratchet-like Nurse Gunn who sends the men off with her assurance that she expects to see them back. . .a sexy waitress in their first venture to a restaurant. . . as a hilariously funny poet at a poetry reading Elling discovers when he finally brings himself to leave the Oslo apartment. . . and, most importantly, as Reidon a very pregnant upstairs neighbor who's been conveniently abandoned by the father of the child, leaving the path to her bed and affection clear for the immediately smitten and horny Kjeli.

Jeremy Shamos, once again demonstrates his versatility as Frank Asli, the social worker assigned to keep tabs on the men but who seems too harried or untrained to really help them. he does get to have a bit of fun in a brief stint as another poet at the above mentioned poetry reading which is also where Elling begins a friendship with Alfons Jorgenson (an as always wonderful performance by Richard Easton). Like Reidun, Alfons is something of a lost soul, having abandoned a successful poetry career when his wife died. His friendship and encouragement turns out to be the open sesame for Elling to prove the wisdom of the older man's declaration that "madness is poetry's most important source." Elling's newly released poetic instincts results in a funnier and more unique methods of self-publishing than I ever encountered during my many years in the publishing business. Alfons's big old Buick also gives Kjell a chance to display his talents as a mechanic and thus further his chances for a future without governmentd supervision.

Scott Pask's Ikea-like set would probably fit more comfortably into a smaller theater, which is undoubtedly true for this entire production. Still, you could do a lot worse than spend two hours with this gentle human interest story about friendship's healing power whether among people who are just lonely and lost or on the brink of insanity.

For a review of Ellin in London (different cast and director), go here.

Adapted by Axel Hellstenius and Petter Næss from Norwegian novels by Ingvar Ambjørnsen
Translated by Simon Bent
Directed by Doug Hughes
Cast: Brendan Fraser (Kjell), Denis O'Hare (Elling), with Jennifer Coolidge (Reidun Nordsletten, Gunn, Johanne, Poet), Richard Easton (Alfons Joergensen), Jeremy Shamos (Frank Ash/Poet)
Sets: Scott Pask
Costumes: Catherine Zuber
Lighting: Kenneth Posner
Composor/Sound: David Van Tieghem
Hair and Wig Design: Tom Watson
Stage Manager: Barclay Stiff
Running Time: 2 hours including intermission
Ethel Barrymore Theatre 243 West 47th Street
From 11/02/10; opening 11/21/10; closing 3/20/11--closing 11/28/10-- after 22 previews, 9 performances.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 11/30/10 press preview
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