PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Elling—Odd Coupling, Norwegian Style

By Harry Haun
22 Nov 2010

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As the government-appointed social worker who looks in on these two loons, Jeremy Shamos is surprised to find himself the grounded, responsible, normal member of the troupe. "It's actually uncommon for me to play someone who's sane—I guess Brendan and Denis must come off more insane than I am," he deduced. Despite being "miscast as a sane person," he said, "I really enjoyed playing it because I feel like I sorta inspired responsibility to hold down the sanity level."

He does get to go crazy once—as an underground grunge poet—and, "thanks to Tom Watson's wig," totally loses his physical identity. "That's what I love to do. I love to transform and change. Sometimes, it hurts when I walk through the press line, and nobody knows who I am—but it helps in terms of telling a story."

Another Tony winner, Richard Easton, brings class and gravitas to the comedy as Alfons Jorgensen, an old reprobate poet who has lost his muse and thinks Elling might do, but he pooh-poohed his literary airs: "That's that terrible Canadian-British accent. People think, 'Ooooh, it's Christopher Plummer—slumming.'"

Coolidge, whose only previous Broadway appearance was as the perpetually pregnant Mrs. Phelps Potter in the 2001 revival of The Women, is with child again, under seedier circumstances. She arrived at the Soho House after-party in character, wanting to know right off the bat: "Where's some really good alcohol?"

Reidun is the favorite of her four roles in the play. "I get to be carried around by Brendan Fraser," she reasoned. "He's kind of a sexy guy, you know." And Doug Hughes came in for special praise from her. "This show was way beyond my expectations," she said with some genuine excitement. "Doug ended up being really funny and witty, and, of course, he's incredibly talented at what he does. I really like the way he directs. He's one of the hardest working guys that I've ever met."

As the ringmaster who made his cast walk the tightrope, director Hughes rates a bow, too. "People have spoken to me about the fact that the actors seem courageous, but I think they were just embracing five fantastic characters. I've gone on the record before as saying, 'These are the five people who I thought could do it.' It takes great soul and great wit and great courage—and they all have it in great supply.

"And, speaking of courage, I think a play that has the courage—these days—to have a sophisticated, happy ending is a wonderful and novel event. I adored that about the play and the fact that, in Elling and Kjell Bjarne, we have two characters who confront the neuroses that all of us confront all the time. It's hard for all of us to get out of our rooms, to distinguish fantasy from reality at times. It's hard for all of us to face the terror of the unknown in social situations. And I thought this play put that in front of an audience in a way that was wonderfully therapeutic and uplifting."

His work is done here, then. Next—in about three weeks—he puts into rehearsal at Manhattan Theatre Club a new play called The Whipping Man with Andre Braugher. "He is one of my favorite actors. He played Henry V with me many, many years ago in Central Park, and he played Claudius in the park a few years back. He read the play and instantly committed to it. It's a brilliant play, by Matthew Lopez. It takes place as the Civil War is ending, and it's one of the most ingenious dramatic situations, I think, that a writer has contrived."

Understudies Robert Emmet Lunney and Ted Koch, who carve up the four male roles between themselves, happened to be Hell's Kitchen neighbors and even played softball together, but this is the first time they've worked together.

Lunney spent the afternoon watching his wife, Jan Maxwell, fold her Wings at Second Stage. Startling for someone who had just played a stroke victim, she did a cartwheel at her curtain call. Next stop is the Alexis Smith lead role in the Kennedy Center revival of Follies. That starts rehearsals April 5 in Washington, so, she said, "I've got four months of peanut butter before I get there."

Closer at hand (Nov. 29), the Lunneys will join F. Murray Abraham for the Red Bull reading series at the Theatre at St. Clements to do Gertrude—The Cry by a playwright they admire and often perform, Howard Barker.

Tony Randall's widow, Heather Randall, admitted at the intermission that she was getting some old "Odd Couple" vibes from Elling. "It's so funny," she said, "when it started, I was thinking of Tony. Denis O'Hare's comic physicality really reminds me of Tony—even the way that he had his feet out. I have to tell Denis."

Brian d'Arcy James, arriving with his actress-wife Jennifer Prescott from his Time Stands Still matinee, contended that he couldn't say what was coming next. It must have slipped his mind that the next day he and Kristin Chenoweth would be doing a new reading of Minsky's, the Charles Strouse-Susan Birkenhead-Bob Martin musical under Casey Nicholaw's direction. Rachel Dratch, who's reprising the part she originated in that show at L.A.'s Ahmanson, let that slip in the press line.

Angela Lansbury arrived at the theatre on the arm of The Witch of Capri (i.e., Edward Hibbert's next role: in The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore, starting Jan. 7 at Roundabout's Laura Pels). Following them were Sam Rockwell with Leslie Bibb; Celebrity Autobiography creators Eugene Pack and Dayle Reyfel; "Star Trek" vet George Takei with husband Brad Altman; producer Francine LeFrak and hubby; and Orfeh and her husband, Andy Karl.

Soloing: Blair Brown of TV's "Fringe"; Kathleen Chalfant; playwright Michael Watson; actor-producer Kevin Spirtas; costumer Catherine Zuber (and who better to costume Coolidge than someone fresh from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown?); Victor Garber; director David Cromer; Paul Wesley of "The Vampire Diaries"; Linda Emond (preparing to workshop this fall the new Tony Kushner play at The Public before its official rehearsals begin in early-to-mid February); Jamie Lynn Sigler; Tony winner Reuben Santiago Hudson; composer Maury Yeston; New Zealand's Jemaine Clement from "The Flight of the Conchords"; Vincent Pastore of "The Sopranos"; producer Finola Dwyer and Kate Jennings Grant.

T.R. Knight, whose Life in the Theatre ends Nov. 28, made a special point of sticking around late, expressly to give Coolidge a big congratulatory hug.