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Brendan Fraser and Denis O'Hare's fine performances often redeem the problematic script and misguided direction in this play about two mismatched buddies.

Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser
in Elling
(© Joan Marcus)
By the end of Elling, now at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the broad appeal of the title character (Denis O'Hare) and his roommate Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser) has become amusingly and winningly apparent. However, for too long before fade-out, the characters -- who meet in an asylum and continue their symbiotic bonding in an Oslo apartment the government assigns them -- are unremittingly obstreperous.

The problem lies neither with Fraser nor O'Hare, as the two game and energetic actors -- often seen pushing furniture around in the semi-darkness -- are just doing what they've been asked to do in Simon Bent's script (adapted from the Norwegian novelist Ingvar Ambjornsen's Elling series and the Axel Hellstenius and Petter Naess stage and screen adaptations). The fault lies with director Doug Hughes, who has asked his actors to emote at high volumes when muted tones would be just as effective or even more so.

Presented in this incarnation as if they're Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy playing a stage treatment of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Elling -- a self-described mommy's boy, who's never learned to do anything for himself -- and Kjell Bjarne -- a 40-year-old virgin who believes he's as simple-minded as he's repeatedly been told he is -- slowly bolster each other.

Their shared growth is especially hoped for by semi-sympathetic social worker Frank Asli (the kinetic Jeremy Shamos). Also contributing to the emergence of timid Elling from his shell is widowed poet Alfons Jorgensen (Richard Easton in another of his polished turns). Meanwhile, Kjell Bjarne becomes enamored of unmarried and very pregnant upstairs neighbor Reidun Nordsletten (Jennifer Coolidge, who also plays with gusto three other women crossing the men's path).

Reidun eventually satisfies good-hearted Kjell Bjarne's longest male longing, and Alfons fosters Elling's interest in writing poetry as they form an actual friendship. It's a talent, by the way, that Elling shows off by inserting poems in sauerkraut boxes he places on supermarket shelves. His subversive act is so effective that he soon gets to read in a local newspaper that "All over Norway people are asking who is the mysterious underground poet 'E.'"

O'Hare, who has been flashing his quirks in local theaters for some time, is a walking twitch and in time is wonderful as such, while Fraser gleefully deglamorizes himself and throws himself and his imposing, fleshy physique into the role. It's their talents that often redeem a script that too often devolves into a second-rate on-stage buddy flick.


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