This review was initially published November 21,2010.
“Elling” deals with a different kind of crazy than the murderous vampire crazy of Denis O’Hare in “True Blood” or the crazy with a specific diagnosis (amnesia) of Brendan Fraser in an early film role. Here, the two stars play a crazy Norwegian “Odd Couple.” O’Hare’s character Elling is a prim, tidy, self-declared momma’s boy who, though already middle-aged, hid in a closet after his mother died. Fraser’s character, Kjell Bjarne, is a big, sloppy orangutan who cares only about women and food, at least according to Elling, and Kjell Bjarne himself is perfectly happy with that assessment. But now 40, he has never actually slept with a woman. The closest he has come was proposing to a woman without his pants on.
“And what did she say?” Elling asks. “She called the police,” Kjell Bjarne answers.
Assigned to be roommates in a mental institution, they are released from the asylum to have a go at independent living, in an apartment in Oslo provided by the Norwegian government, as long as the two of them make progress towards adjusting to the outside world. Whether or not the crazy of “Elling,” which has now opened at the Barrymore, bears any relationship to real-world insanity, it is firmly in the tradition of comic cuddly crazies depicted in such movies as Morgan,King of Hearts, and, in 2001, “Elling” itself, a Norwegian movie that was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, with a screenplay co-written by Ingvar Ambjornsen, based on his popular novels. (It was also a popular play in Norway.)
It is a story, in other words, that has already established its appeal, and Simon Bent’s English-language adaptation for the stage is a faithful rendering – gently amusing, affectionate towards the characters, and odd. Some of the oddities have no apparent point: We never learn the characters’ last names. Most of the oddities are funny in both senses of the word, as the two roommates begin relating to each other and the world — learning first how to use the telephone, how to shop for food, how to order in a restaurant — feeling forced each step of the way by Frank, their social worker (Jeremy Shamos), who threatens to take their apartment away and put them back in the asylum if they don’t adjust. Their ignorance of the ways of the world is bliss for the audience. When a cashier at the railroad station asks Elling whether he wants a one-way ticket, Elling is confused: Are there other ways? What’s the quickest way? Eventually, Elling and Kjell Bjarne actually make friends, if somewhat…oddly. Their pregnant upstairs neighbor collapses drunkenly on the stairs, and Kjell Bjarne rescues her, an event that blossoms, more or less, into romance. To hide his jealousy, Elling goes to a poetry reading, meets an old man who turns out to be a famous poet, and makes a realization: Elling himself was born to be a poet. He decides to write poems and seal them in sauerkraut packets for sale at local supermarkets. To the extent that “Elling” works, it is not due to the wisps of plot, which are even more incidental than they are implausible. The entertainment comes from the well-pitched performances from a cast of five. This includes Jennifer Coolidge, most noteworthy for her hilarious turns in Christopher Guest’s mock film documentaries (“Best in Show,” “A Mighty Wind,” For Your Consideration”). She plays all the women in the play (the pregnant drunk, a nurse, a waitress, a poet). Brendan Fraser, making his Broadway debut, plays one of his familiar dim gentle giants, but it is an ideal character for a live performance, and if his line readings are virtually unvaried throughout the play — he shouts in excitement a lot — this seems in character, and he in any case seems a natural on the stage. Now that Denis O’Hare has woken up the TV-viewing public to his magnificence, perhaps he will receive the attention he deserves — and that the theater world long has paid him: He won a Tony for playing the gay accountant in the baseball comedy “Take Me Out,” and was nominated for his role as a presidential assassin in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” playing the murderous kind of crazy. Here, his prim gestures and tight-lipped pronouncements are as usual on target. It is safe to say that “Elling” offers the greatest Norwegian story on a Broadway stage since Ibsen — since there have been no Norwegian stories on Broadway other than Ibsen’s — and that it’s a far funnier play than “When We Dead Awaken.” But the laughs here are not big. When Elling says of Kjell Bjarne “There’s nothing wrong with Kjell Bjarne, he’s just a bit funny,” that could be the credo for Elling the character too, and for “Elling” the play.