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November 21, 2010

Review: Elling

by Jesse North

Playing former mental hospital patients, Denis O’Hare and Brendan Fraser are friends and roommates attempting to make their way in a society where they do not feel comfortable. O’Hare as Elling is uptight, blunt to the point of rudeness, and too timid to leave his apartment to buy groceries. Fraser as Kjell Bjarne is an affection-hungry goof, eager to explore life (scoring hot dogs and chicks). Together, their social ineptitudes create a hilarious and touching on-stage friendship of watchable (if simple) antics.

In case the names are tripping you up (Kjell Bjarne is pronounced “Jell Bee-yar-na”), here’s a clue why. Elling is based on a popular novel and film series from Norway. As for why these characters were adapted for a Broadway stage, I didn’t glean much values or any greater idea from the play. What Elling does offer is a quirky batch of episodes for these characters and a showcase for some fantastic performances.

O’Hare is a comedic powerhouse as Elling, mastering a subtle array of idiosyncrasies that provide huge laughs. He has developed the character so fully and is able to put the audience through a cycle of emotions about Elling. Do we like him, do we love him, is he selfish, is he a good friend? These thoughts are not up to chance; O’Hare makes us think them. He has a control over his character that is rare and delightful to witness.

Former dashing action star Fraser now appears on stage as a beer-bellied “orangutan” (even Kjell Bjarne admits it). Showing no vanity while portraying this butt-scratching oaf, Fraser isn’t afraid to shed his leading-man looks and is rewarded with big laughs. One of the first laughs of the play is his caveman-like appearance. While more of the physical and facial comedy is Fraser’s responsibility, his Kjell Bjarne lacks Elling’s complexity. Yet the execution of his character’s duties does not disappoint. Fraser may have been brave and handsome in the Mummy films, but he proves to be greatly comedic on stage.

Jennifer Coolidge, of American Pie and Legally Blonde fame, rotates through the play’s handful of female characters. She doesn’t have to do much than be Jennifer Coolidge (always a cleavage-bearing space cadet with a sort of sicko sexuality), but she pulls it off just as well as she has on screen. Jeremy Shamos plays Frank Asli, the buddies’ social worker in charge of monitoring their progress living on their own. His normal, easy-going guy is a welcome refresh to the heaping amount of oddball displayed on stage. Yet perhaps the role he serves best is his mere character’s existence, just so O’Hare can so hilariously hiss his name every time he encounters the man he has disdain for.

Other than a drastically raked set by Scott Pask, there isn’t much of interest in Elling’s appearance. Pask’s design of Elling and Kjell Bjarne’s apartment is a little too blah. Costume designer Catherine Zuber has done an accurate job of outfitting Kjell Bjarne as a hulking goon (tank undershirt, furry hat). What’s truly on display in Elling are the performances, and although everyone gets to groove in their misfit shoes at some point, Denis O’Hare reigns as the king of the crazies.

Play: B

General rush policy for Elling:
Two hours prior to the performance, one ticket per person may be purchased for $35.

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