Broadway Review: ELLING (Ethel Barrymore Theater)

by Alix Cohen on November 23, 2010

in Theater-New York

Post image for Broadway Review: ELLING  (Ethel Barrymore Theater)


Kjell is a big, soft, gentle slob of a boy in a man’s body.  He’s unwashed, unshaven and, to put it nicely, slow.  He wears his over-sized heart on his unwashed sleeve.  A forty-year-old virgin, any mention of sex gives him an agonizing hard-on. Like a dog that runs after cars, one wonders what he’d do with a woman if he managed to catch one. After all, when he’s happy or upset he shouts “OH SHIT!”

Elling, on the other hand, has his heart neatly ironed, folded and locked away, much in the manner he guards his journal and physical person. He’s a self-affirmed mama’s boy, obsessive/compulsive and wound so tight that he practically vibrates. When he’s upset, he talks –  sometimes to himself (impressively if you don’t listen too carefully).

In the Broadway play Elling, now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, these unlikely friends meet as roommates in an asylum, where, despite having completely opposite mental and emotional problems, they grow to depend upon one another. Two years later, Kjell and Elling are released from the institution to continue as roommates at a provisionally supplied government apartment in Oslo, a sort of half-way housing test. Frequently checked-in-on by a social worker (Jeremy Shamos doing yeoman work), the two must truly fend for themselves for perhaps the first time in their lives…or lose their freedom.

During the bumpy course of the play, based on a series of Norwegian novels and a 2001 film (nominated for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Language Film), the two men learn deeper truths about who they are and survival skills in how to be who they are, with each other and in the world. First-time experiences include fraternizing with a woman (Jennifer Coolidge) – but not the kind of woman you’d expect – and making a new friend (Richard Easton), initially taken for a figment of Elling’s imagination. Easton carries off the warmth and weariness of someone recognizing a fellow lost soul. He has a lovely moment forgoing temptation.

O’Hare has created in Elling a character so delicately, carefully, and fully realized that we never doubt his existence for a moment. Not a single action or reaction registers as false. The economy of much of the script is fleshed out by O’Hare’s complete focus and understated, eccentric, rather Chaplinesque movement and expression. It’s a performance of poignant, comic truth.

Frasier has largely built his film career playing buffoons. It may come as a surprise to anyone who hasn’t seen him in films like Gods and Monsters that – surprise – he can act!  Carrying himself like a completely unselfconscious child, unaware of his size, propriety, or boundaries, his portrayal of Kjell, never one-dimensional, is endearing rather than clownish. Frequent outbursts seem genuinely innocent. Kjells’s lack of confidence is made palpably painful, his joy celebratory.

Doug Hughes’ direction has components of both buoyant anarchy and minimalist precision. He has defined his protagonists down to their toes. Their timing is impeccable. Scenes shift with comfortable rhythm.  A single pseudo-fight scene is a hoot.

Scott Pask’s Scenic Design is stark and Scandinavian, an effective canvas. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are imaginative and fun. David Van Tieghem’s offbeat Original Music and Sound Design works beautifully to maintain the atmosphere.

Hughes describes Elling as “children’s theater for adults” because of its sense of wonder. There are no guns, vampires, spandex, rock music, or special effects (unless you count a starry night sky).  It’s charming, quirky, touching, and laugh-out-loud funny. And besides, at no other show in town will you have the opportunity to hear “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in Norwegian.

photos by Joan Marcus

ends on March 20, 2011
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