I have walked through puddles that were deeper than this play.
Two men meet in a mental institution in Norway and, for reasons unknown to us, are released at the same time under supervision of the state. Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser) and Elling (Dennis O’Hare) are ill-suited, of course. Elling is an agoraphobic. Bjarne is a person looking for love and sex and pretty much anything else he can gobble up. Elling has a mild case of OCD, Bjarne has a hard time keeping track of when he last bathed.
This ill-constructed tale dumps us, like this duo, into their new apartment and then leaves us there for the better part of two hours. Nothing much happens during that time. Well, there is the pregnant woman, Johanne (Jennifer Coolidge) living upstairs, who is angling for Bjarne. And there is the old poet Alfons Jorgensen (Richard Easton) who befriends Elling on his one excursion out to a poetry reading. And there is the caseworker Frank Asli (Jeremy Shamos) who pops in and out to monitor the duo’s progress. Other than that there is a lot of nothing happening, during which O’Hare does his damndest to fill with creating Elling in front of us and Fraser spends a lot of time marching around the stage impersonating a man of diminished mental capacity, at which he is most definitely not successful.
The only plot point of any significance comes in the second act when the poet states that if Bjarne can fix his old car (at last we see that Bjarne has ONE skill) he will take the threesome to the country to his cabin. This does happen with a side bar into a nearly stolen manuscript that is returned.
That’s it. And these actors try hard. They work their butts off, unaided by Doug Hughes flat direction and hindered by Scott Pask’s set. They nearly spend more time moving set pieces than speaking to one another.
It is an enormous disappointment because the potential of what is a tender story keeps peaking through. I was reminded of The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, where misfits tumble over each other trying to figure out how to live in concert. These are two complete misfits tossed out onto the seas, and in that tale is a nugget of intrigue and terror and hope.
Every millimeter of that nugget has been pounded out of this script. And the actors are left to push the rock up the hill over and over again.
The audience was eager to laugh at the odd moments the night I attended. But as Alfons Jorgensen says to Elling about poetry readings, “The worse it gets, the more they clap,” so maybe that explains why.
What the popular press said...
"It is hard to see the point of translating this story to the stage if you have to distort or disregard the qualities that make it fresh."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"Has charming moments, but in the end, the best word to describe it is 'weird.'"
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"It has a modest, oddball charm."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Slight, endearing 'Elling,' a Broadway comedy."
Jeremy Gerard for Bloomberg
"This quirky, intimate comedy-drama proves to be unassumingly successful."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"Not sturdy or funny enough to hold interest."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Wishy-washy production generates only intermittent laughs and scant emotional resonance."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"There's a sense here of a small play swimming on a Broadway stage and struggling to project to a large house."
David Rooney for Hollywood Reporter
"This queasy-making comedy is so broadly played, by a cast headlined by Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser, it's close to sitcom. Call it 'Friends With Mental Issues.'"
Marilyn Stasio for Variety