I've heard of cultural exchange programs before, but Norway's new gift to Broadway—Elling, which bowed Nov. 21 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre—must be the first time two leading men have exchanged their underwear on stage.
Yes, they're cracked! How could you question it? Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser) and Elling (Denis O'Hare), as they are constantly called throughout, are actually from a long and imbalanced line of unbalanced funny buddies—Ollie and Stan, George and Lennie, Oscar and Felix, Dumb and Dumber—only this new pair is uniquely Norwegian. In Norway, the government has a training-wheel program for nut-jobs who want to get rolling again in to life: Misfit outcasts are transferred from the asylum to a halfway house to acclimate themselves to the pressures and demands of the world outside. So it is that the tightly wound Elling, a wannabe poet, must cope with the crude, hulking, 40-year-old virgin, Kjell Bjarne.
The shorts-shucking-'n'-swapping scene occurs in the second act—as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to spruce up Kjell Bjarne to lose his innocence at last with the trashy and pregnant girl upstairs, Reidun Nordsletten (Jennifer Coolidge).
At an early preview, when Fraser donned his new briefs and turned to O'Hare for a fast fashion feedback—"How do I look?"—a woman in the audience volunteered, "Awesome!" That sent the audience into several minutes of hysterical convulsions.
Elling is based on a tetralogy of novels by Ingvar Ambjornsen—the first, in particular: "Brodre i blodet (Blood Brothers)"—about a couple of loose-screws making their way through life. Axel Hellstenius adapted, and Petter Naess directed, this story for the stage and then for the screen. The movie represented Norway in the 2001 Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film, and the play has been performed on almost 200 stages before reaching Broadway.
Simon Bent, who did the English translation for London and Broadway, slithered quietly, bashfully, through the opening without doing a single interview, but Hellstenius unhesitatingly hit the red carpet and duly noticed the differences.
"It's very different here," he observed. "Opening night in Norway is opening night. This is almost the first time the cast meets the audience. Here, you have 15 performances before. I know this cast really knows the play and knows each other, so I know that I'm going to see a very professional job of the play tonight."[flipbook]
Director Naess seconded that sentiment. "It's a wonderful experience to see something that I've been a part of creating finally come to Broadway," he admitted. "It has been ten years since I staged it for the first time in Norway, and the movie came two years later—and now, eight years after that, Broadway!"
He wasn't sure if all the Norwegian humor made it across. "It's taking a chance to do it because the play takes place in Norway [Oslo], which is like a social democratic bubble that extends on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. You don't have the same social welfare system here that we have in Norway. People actually do get an apartment and government supervision there if they want to step back into society."
The maladies that affect the two main characters go by the boards unspecified and undiagnosed, and Naess believes that's a good thing. "It's a very human thing to have mental issues—claustrophobia, anxiety, whatever it is. Everybody has something on some level—so I think that will make it easier for people to relate to the characters."
Fraser and O'Hare both brought something to the table to keep their characters alive, likable and twitching. There's some "Encino Man" and "George of the Jungle" in the big bruiser that Fraser labors to make loud and lovable, just as O'Hare makes Elling several notches lower than his Tony-winning Oscar in Sweet Charity, only hinting at his protracted elevator-claustrophobia hysterics in that show. Both actors allowed that it was no easy task getting themselves into such a fraught state.
The old high-wire allusion was apt for Fraser. "You should go for the risk. It's worth it. That's where you're going to learn. That's where you should be a bit frightened. There should be a moment, and there was for me tonight. Before I went on, I said, 'Well, it's too late to turn back now.' There's always a little risk. It felt good."
Turns out, he's a longstanding fan of Elling: "When it came out in 2001 as a film, I received an Academy screener, and I kept it with me because I was so charmed by it. I've always been fond of oddball stories. 'Of Mice and Men' is something I read as a kid. This is kinda like that, only with a happy ending. There are shades of Beckett's Godot. The dialogue in Elling seems about ready to break out into 'Who's on first?' I think of it as children's theatre for adults."
There are easier ways to lose one's Broadway virginity, but now that he's here, he wants more. "I'll make a point of doing it more often than I have been in the past."
Elling was no snap diagnosis for O'Hare, either. "I did do a lot of research," the actor confessed. "I read a lot of books on Asperger's, and I went and visited a school for autism and Asperger's. The play doesn't say what's troubling them. The play is smart that way. It doesn't give a specific malady so we're just doing a kind of amalgam. We also don't want to make it specific. We're just trying to pick from certain things. I feel like the character coming from the page is so strong that I just used the guy from the script rather than reference someone. On first reading, I got a strong feeling of who he was—an innate feeling, and that's what I went with. You definitely feel you're working without a net. It takes a lot of concentration every night. So many things can go wrong, believe me, you feel the tightrope-walk of it."
The play is set to run till March 20. After that, O'Hare has no concrete plans. "I may go back to L.A. It depends on what's happening there. Maybe I'll go back into the series ["True Blood"]. They haven't told me yet. My life seems to be in the balance."Denis O'Hare and director Doug Hughes discuss the show:
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