PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Elling—Odd Coupling, Norwegian Style
By Harry Haun
Meet the first-nighters of Simon Bent's Elling, the odd-couple comedy now playing Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
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."
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:
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.
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