By Joseph Hurley
“Elling” From Novels By Ingvar Ambjornsen • With Denis O’Hare (pictured on the left above) and Brendan Fraser, directed by Doug Hughes • at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, NYC • Thru March 20, 2011
The Playbill for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre lists twenty-two individuals and groups as producers of the play, “Elling,” which has just opened there. It boggles the mind to think that any of them seriously believed that a workable stage production could be hacked out of what began as a series of Norwegian novels.
The “Elling” stories have been adapted into no fewer than three films, the first of which, in 2002, was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award.
What’s on stage at the Barrymore Theatre may make you think vaguely of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” because it deals with the subtle, mutually dependant relationship linking two vastly different men.
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At the start of the play, Elling, played by Denis O’Hare, and Kjell Bjarne, played by Brendan Fraser, making his New York stage debut, are mental patients sharing a room in a Norwegian mental hospital near the Norwegian capital city, Oslo.
The time is the present, and Elling and Kjell Bjarne, apparently considered nearly cured, are about to be transferred to an apartment in the center of the city, where they will once again live together.
They will be pretty much on their own, though under very light supervision by a hospital social workers, who looks in on them from time to time.
Elling, the brighter of the two men, keeps a private notebook which he tries to keep out of sight of others, and is interested in writing poetry.
Kjell Bjarne is primarily interested in women and food. He is dependant on Elling, almost as much as Steinbeck’s Lenny is dependant on the dominant George in “Of Mice and Men.”
Fraser has packed on a considerable amount of weight since he made films such as “Encino Man,” “George of the Jungle,” and what is probably his best-known, most serious movie, “Gods and Monsters.”
The social worker assigned to their case is Frank Asli, played wth energy and enthusiasm by Jeremy Shamos. Jennifer Coolidge, veteran of several of the “American Pie” films and a few Christopher Guest movies, appears in four roles, including a pregnant woman who lives in an apartment directly above the one in which the boys live.
The admirable Richard Easton, completing director Doug Hughes’ five-actor cast, is sadly wasted in a couple of brief roles that amount to not much more than walk-ons.
There is no more adroit, gifted or nimble comic actor in our theater than Denis O’Hare, as anyone who saw him in Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out” can testify, but this time out the longueurs of “Elling” almost succeed in defeating him.
Scott Pask’s uncharacteristically drab set design, composed mainly of a couple of twin beds, a table and some chairs, has the stars shifting furniture around more than seems absolutely necessary.