New York: The story of two recently released mental patients bunking together in an apartment in Oslo doesn`t sound like perfect fodder for a Broadway comedy. But there`s something relentlessly charming about ‘Elling.’
The comedy, which opened Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, stars Denis O`Hare and Brendan Fraser as a 21st-century ‘The Odd Couple’— that is, if neurotic Felix was also mother-fixated while messy Oscar was also obsessed with sex.
O`Hare plays the title character with typical pathos and droll wit. His Elling is a hyper-intellectual, hyper-nervous, self-important, paranoid know-it-all who reveres his dead mom and suffers from agoraphobia, among other problems.
Fraser is a huge unhousebroken puppy in the part of Kjell Bjarne, a hairy, slovenly virgin in his 30s who would dearly love to consummate a relationship with a woman — any woman. He`s referred to as an orangutan — always hungry and easily aroused. Fraser uses his skills at being the wide-eyed naive to good use.
The two, roommates in a modern-day asylum when the play opens, are released to their own apartment and can stay independent as long as they demonstrate progress. They must learn to use the phone, find friends and go shopping.
Elling is resistant at first. "Why have an apartment if we have to leave it all the time?" he asks. Kjell, for his part, just wants to go out and meet "chicks," although he is afraid to do it alone.
These are innocents released into the world — they are delighted to find that pizza gets delivered — and along the way must navigate a few other characters: a stern social worker (Jeremy Shamos); an eccentric artist (a wise and elegant Richard Easton); and a very pregnant neighbor (the criminally funny Jennifer Coolidge).
The story has hit some sort of trans-Atlantic sweet spot. Based on the novels by Ingvar Ambjornsen, the tale was made into a cult, Oscar-nominated foreign-language film and adapted in Norwegian for the stage by Axel Hellstenius and Petter Naess. This English-language version by Simon Bent comes to Broadway after a well-received run in London and with a new cast.
‘Elling’ never falls into the trap of slapstick, a dangerous prospect with two leads suffering from an illness. (What exactly their diagnoses are is unclear, but they may involve touches of autism and Tourette`s syndrome.) The characters, under the sensitive touch of director Doug Hughes, are introduced as odd misfits and then gradually win us over. By the end, the audience is rooting for them to succeed.
The production wrings much suspense in a thin, feel-good story that is essentially a character piece. There is also a slight biblical theme — a pregnant woman on Christmas, mistaken angels, a virgin mother and a reference to Kjell as "one of life`s simpler Apostles." But they`re just a motif and really don`t go anywhere.
Rather, the play is more a "bromance," and it tries to show there is real jeopardy attached to these men — a trip back to the asylum and likely their last chance at freedom. Frightened and nervous, Kjell and Elling often just wait in their apartment, babbling existentially — "Logic is the enemy of reason," Elling says at one point — and seemingly anticipate the other shoe to drop.
In that way, the play strives for shades of Samuel Beckett`s "Waiting for Godot" and, with Fraser`s massive, stout character looming over a thin, thoughtful O`Hare, recalls John Steinbeck`s "Of Mice and Men." The depth of those works, though, aren`t present in this light, sentimental comedy.
Scott Pask`s sets are simple — two beds, a telephone, a few chairs and an armoire, really. But because O`Hare and Fraser push them about between scenes works on a meta-level: Both characters are fitting the pieces of their lives together.
Sound designer David van Tieghem has a neat trick in having the radio play in the apartment and then moving the music to the front-of-house speakers, pulling the audience into this world. The stage is also constructed slightly askew, adding to the offbeat perspective.
Goosed by the social worker, the two less-than-heroic duo spread their wings, helping each other. "I have made a friend. On my own. Without the aid of the Norwegian government," Elling says proudly at one point. In fact, each man finds a sort of angel, though damaged and odd.
The whole thing is pretty odd, and yet oddly fun. Or, as Elling likes to say whenever people catch on that he is a little odd, "I prefer the English expression `rare.` As in uncommon."