BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Not having read Norwegian writer Ingvar Ambjornsen's novel "Elling" nor seen the 2002 film drawn from it, I cannot assess how faithfully his story regarding two misfits has been adapted for the stage.
Opening on Sunday at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, "Elling" turns out to be a thin little comedy about a Norwegian odd couple.
Roommates in a mental institution, compulsive-obsessive loner Elling (Denis O'Hare) and sweet, dull-witted hulk Kjell (Brendan Fraser) are released for a trial stay in Oslo where they share an apartment. The play studies their fumbling adjustment to the real world as Elling eventually becomes unlikely friends with a famed poet and Kjell is smitten with a hard-partying pregnant neighbor.
Playwright Simon Bent treats the episodic story as a mildly whimsical comedy as the middle aged men slowly expand their horizons. Elling begins to write. Kjell discovers phone sex. Beds are repeatedly dragged from one side of the room to another. The fridge is crammed with sauerkraut. They go to a restaurant, attend a poetry slam and visit a cabin in the country.
Presumably we are meant to be touched and beguiled by these guys. Unfortunately, Bent drags their uneventful doings out for two acts and director Doug Hughes' wishy-washy production generates only intermittent laughs and scant emotional resonance.
Making his Broadway debut, Fraser boisterously portrays Kjell as an overgrown child with a potbelly and a sweet, loopy smile. The prickly Elling is intensely depicted by O'Hare as a twitchy, fast-talking, know-it-all. The costars are capable but share no significant chemistry as actors. The supreme act of friendship when their characters exchange underpants should be a key moment in the play but staged by Hughes for neither comedy nor drama it merely looks uncomfortable.
The featured actors do first rate work. Richard Easton offers a benevolent presence as the old writer who befriends Elling. Jeremy Shamos breezes in and out as a scruffy social worker. Playing four different characters, Jennifer Coolidge throws off a very funny turn as a humorless poet and later manifests the essentially warm nature of the woozy neighbor Kjell comes to love.
Lacking significant dramatic punch and outstanding performances, "Elling" adds little excitement to the Broadway season.
"Elling" continues through March 20 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.ellingonbroadway.com.