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Theater Review: The Low-Key Pleasures of Elling

Denis O’Hare, Brendan Fraser, and Jennifer Coolidge, in Elling.

Even the fiercest Palinite will succumb to the charms of Elling, a bent little love triangle between two middle-aged, mentally ill men and a mildly exasperated European welfare state. This gentle, subversively mellow comedy-of-quirks, adapted from a series of Norwegian novels that have already made multiple visits to the stage and screen (a movie version was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2002), follows the same ingratiating Oscar-and-Felix rhythms that dominate lots of roommate-story situations — with an important twist. The two men in question aren’t merely odd. They’re government wards, released from an institution and fighting to retain a subsidized apartment by proving they can maintain a bare minimum of normalcy: leaving the house, using the telephone, buying a meal. “I’m in a state of mourning,” explains prickly shut-in and self-described “mamma’s boy” Elling (Denis O’Hare), whose mother has died nearly three years prior, taking his whole world with her. “I’m just in a state,” says his friend and cohab, the sweet behemoth Kjell Bjarne (Brendan Fraser), whose life is defined entirely by meals and erections, both of which feel like infinitely renewable miracles. These two are in a state, all right — and, lucky for them, it’s Scandinavian. “It’s the responsibility of parents to allow their children to grow up,” tuts their hepcat social worker, Frank (the flinty, funny Jeremy Shamos, here demonstrating consummate control as straight man and all-around quirk wrangler). (Full disclosure: Shamos is a friend and former collaborator of mine.) He’s summing up Elling’s stage whisper of a moral: Love can be tough and fair, and growing up, for an individual or a society, does not and cannot mean growing apart.

Fans of the film will find the stage adaptation a somewhat different animal. Director Doug Hughes and scenarist Scott Pask, recently escaped from the top-heavy topiary of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, translate wintry-literal downtown-Oslo grit into the spartan Ikea showroom that, onstage, always seems to signal moderate, modular avant-garde-ish-ness. (Apparently, Elling and Kjell Bjarne’s state-sponsored living arrangement — which Norwegians will recognize as a real-life, familiar social setting — must be rendered as highly experimental theater to be credible in tea-party America.) Simon Bent’s English adaptation has a crisp absurdist lyricism to it, and the acting has been stylized to match: As Elling, the magnificent O’Hare (Take Me Out, True Blood) once again proves himself the reigning basket case of the American stage, playing dazzling, perfectly articulated cadenzas of neurosis while balancing a contempt for all things contemporary on the point of his turned-up nose. Lines like “Mother did the shopping. I was in charge of ideology” sound custom-designed for O’Hare’s pinched, pitch-bending delivery, which he modulates for maximum fun: His voice is like an oboe played through a garden hose. It’s the sound of a highly cultivated repression, which is fitting enough: Elling is an arch-conservative by Scandinavian standards. Asked to “get a grip,” he snaps: “A grip of what? The modern world has left very little to take a grip of. Mother and I are in agreement that the Norwegian Labour Party was an excellent judge of right and wrong.” Mother is dead, of course, and the Party’s great mid-century social achievements are far behind it — the world’s gone to pot. All of which leaves Elling cowering in his apartment.

Luckily, he’s not alone in there: Kjell Bjarne, whose ogre-size appetites are mediated only by his equally engorged empathy, is Elling’s cosmic comic counterpoint. Fraser plays him big and loud, a kind of innocuous Lenny from Of Mice and Men, in a bold if somewhat insensate performance, which Hughes reins in just short of much-too-much. Fraser is not a precision instrument, but then, neither is Kjell Bjarne, who insists on going out to “meet chicks,” in the hopes of losing his vintage virginity. When he finds a drunken pregnant woman conveniently sprawled in their stairwell (Best in Show’s blowsy-brilliant Jennifer Coolidge, who kills in an array of smaller, stellar parts), it’s clear we’re assembling one of those traditionally nontraditional makeshift families that heartwarming comedies tend to attract. (The great Richard Easton rounds off the ensemble as a mysterious retired poet who takes on the father-starved Elling as a protégé.)

Elling has just enough edge to keep itself from falling into a sugar coma; the story’s already mild politics have been muted to a murmur in this adaptation. But its message about the relationship of a civil society (scaled back, perhaps, but still essentially progressive and humane) with the weird and irreducible individuals who constitute it — namely, that there needn’t be an apocalyptic showdown between the two — is nothing short of revolutionary in the current zero-sum political climate. Late in the play, Elling has reentered the world outside his apartment, even launching a career as a guerrilla poet who tucks his verse in supermarket sauerkraut packaging. Praised for his talent, he’s asked if “the Sauerkraut Poet” will ever reveal himself, go public, collect the dividend of recognition (meager though it may be). “No,” demurs Elling, “he must remain anonymous, remain who he is.” How refreshing: an anti-modern malcontent who finally comes out of his cave not brandishing an underwear bomb or a snake flag or Fox News contract ... but a poem. Maybe there’s hope for the social contract after all.

Photo: Joan Marcus