Denis O'Hare, Brendan Fraser and Jennifer Coolidge in Elling on Broadway.
BOTTOM LINE: Tony Award winner Dennis O'Hare's brilliant performance as Norwegian nutcase Elling makes an otherwise ho-hum stage adaptation a thoroughly enjoyable piece of theater.
Broadway's Elling is the most recent work to jump on the "bromance" bandwagon. Based on the novels of the same name by author Ingvar Ambjornsen, the play tells the story of two Norwegian nuts that meet in a mental institution and whose relationship evolves from that of roommates to best friends to platonic life partners (read: an old married couple).
Elling (Dennis O'Hare), an eternal mama's boy and aspiring poet with a knack for making up stories, is moved into a psychiatric hospital and assigned to live with Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser), a lovable oaf of few words whose life goals seem only to include eating, sleeping, and losing his virginity (which, at over 40, is completely understandable – and enough to drive any sane man crazy).
After two years (which spans only the first 10 minutes of the play) and in hopes of integrating the pair into the real world, the Norwegian government moves the deranged duo into an apartment. Elling and Kjell Bjarne are left to fend mostly for themselves and learn to accomplish ordinary tasks like picking up the phone, answering the door, and meeting people (their "progress" is monitored by a social worker Frank Asli, played by Jeremy Shamos). Over the course of the play, we watch as they master these "tasks," and in the midst of their joint attempt at normalcy, Elling befriends a formerly great poet (played by Richard Easton) while Kjell Bjarne falls in love with his and Elling's equally oafish, knocked up Viking-of-a-neighbor, Reidun Nordsletten (played by Jennifer Coolidge). In the end, we are lead to believe that the now-foursome (plus Frank Asli) will live happily ever after as suggested by the play's final image, a portrait that displays the cast of characters posing with one another and looking jolly.
While a fun foray into the world of crazy, the show wraps up too neatly (not to mention abruptly) and falls flat due to an underdeveloped script. In general, Elling plays like a yuck-yuck episode of the (really) Odd Couple, though in its most successful moments it reads as a rather touching portrayal of two socially-inept men who are crippled by life and whose survival in the world would otherwise be questionable had they not found each other.
The play boasts a small ensemble cast of seasoned veterans of both the stage and the screen which is perhaps Elling's biggest selling point, both in print and in practice. Thanks to his brilliant comedic timing and impossibly flexible face, Dennis O'Hare makes the farcical Elling feel utterly real. He does crazy better than I've ever seen it done, and what is most moving about the performance is the fact that O'Hare doesn't comment on his character but rather inhabits him so fully that it left me wondering if O'Hare is perhaps as crazy as his stage alter-ego. While Brendan Fraser (best known for his work in The Mummy movies and – in my humble opinion – his breakout role as Encino Man in the cult classic film of the same name) is less successful in keeping it real, I was pleasantly surprised by his endearing and at many times hilarious turn as the simple Norwegian. The legendary Richard Easton and his talent, however, feel mostly under-utilized, and Coolidge's usually pitch-perfect awkwardness and general fabulousness don't translate from screen to stage in this adaptation.
What Elling lacks in a well-developed script, it makes up for in pure enjoyment. The two hours fly by – thanks mostly to O'Hare's stellar performance – and the show is an overall fun romp with a few of Broadway's finest and Hollywood's notables.
(Elling plays at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues, through March 20, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 8PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $52-$122 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212.239.6200.)