Sunday, November 21, 2010


Photo/Joan Marcus

First, take the The Odd Couple. Then, have a Norwegian author, Ingvar Ambjornsen, adapt it for the whimsical climate of Oslo. Specify that, although it begins in a madhouse, neither of your characters--persnickety momma's boy Elling and excitable, explicative-prone, orangutan-like Kjell Bjarne--are actually ill, just a little off. Now, have a playwright, Simon Bent, put it back into English (and on the stage, based on a film adaptation by Axel Hellstenius and Petter Naess), and then import the whole thing to Broadway with some eye-catching stars: Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser.

The result, Elling, manages to be both highly compressed and all over the place, a rather mundane play with a few extraordinary characters, a show with a lack of dramatic tension, but a ton of individually pleasant scenes. The casting is spot-on, and yet also uninspired: Jennifer Coolidge plays a ditsy sexpot, Jeremy Shamos channels a frustrated social worker, and Richard Easton portrays an eccentric poet. In other words, there's no reason for Elling to be a play (it longs to be a sitcom), but then again, it's already here, all innocuous and tender-hearted, so why not, after exhausting all other options, see it? There are plenty of dogs that don't want to learn new tricks.

In any case, should you find yourself at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, you need only remember this bold declaration of Elling's--"Logic is the enemy of reason"--for the play has neither. Elling hides in closets, refuses to go outside or answer the phone, and has conversations with his dead mother . . . and then he doesn't. Kjell Bjarne considers himself to be dressed if he's wearing boxers and a T-shirt and has no idea how to converse with women (even casually talking about them makes him hard), except that when he meets his drunk, pregnant upstairs neighbor, Reidun (Coolidge), all of those issues go away. Elling simply follows two odd friends on their very ordinary adventures, and that's it. Hearing excerpts from bad poets doesn't help us to better understand Elling's transformation into the underground artist known as the "Sauerkraut Poet," but it's funny enough on its own.

That's the rub, however: Elling is merely "funny enough." That may be enough for Fraser, who is only asked to scale up his hormones and outrage, but O'Hare seems wasted in his role. To clarify: he's terrific, nailing every line, every movement--in fact, elevating what are otherwise some rather bland lines--but it's like watching Roger Federer play tennis against a neonate. Thankfully, he's at least guided by a talented director: Hughes slows the second act down, adding some much needed silence and reflection; this keeps the genuinely sweet moments between Elling and Kjell Bjarne--thoughtfully unexpected Christmas presents, shared underwear--from turning into cloying ones.

At the end, Elling gropes for some sort of conclusion, and ultimately comes up with this: normal is as normal does. That seems fitting for the show, which is simply what it is: simple.


Leigh Hile said...

I'm convinced Denis O'Hare is one of the most talented comedic actors working today. I had the pleasure of seeing him in Greg Kotis's Pig Farm a number of times: I was working as an usher for the theater in which it ran. His performance made seeing the show upwards of several dozen times worthwhile - he never missed a beat.

Aaron Riccio said...

Agreed. I think I'd already seen O'Hare in "Take Me Out," and I was blown away by his total reversal of what I thought was his type in "Pig Farm." But he's got a tough run for the comedy gold this year--Mark Rylance and Michael Shannon are killing it!