BWW Reviews: Enjoy a Hilarious, Cock-Eyed Norway at Washington Stage Guild's ELLING
Face it - when we think of Norway, "laugh riot" is usually the last thing that comes to mind. Most of us see a nation overrun by humorless, Socialist bluestockings, do-gooders on cross-country skis who are so righteous it's a pain to be anywhere near them (does the name Henrik Ibsen ring a bell?).
Imagine my relief to discover that these folks have a sense of humor after all and-better yet-are champion at demolishing all the social pieties we find so annoying. The Washington Stage Guild's DC premiere production of Elling, although slow going at first, revs up to give you a hilarious slice of life in modern-day Oslo. And yes-Hedda Gabler or no Hedda Gabler, it's a very funny place indeed.
This Elling is a classic comedy in the Odd Couple mode. Think: Neil Simon meets Sigmund Freud, with a healthy dose of Ken Kesey thrown in. The action revolves around two men, Elling and Kjell Bjarne (which turns out to be easy to pronounce-just don't ask me to do it here). Both of them are thrown together as roommates at a mental health facility, in spite of the fact that their challenges make them complete opposites-the withdrawn Elling, who prefers closets to open space, is something of an obsessive-compulsive with serious agoraphobia, while the affable and outgoing Kjell Bjarne is a perpetual adolescent, obsessed with losing his virginity (there may be other issues, but trust me, that one's enough to throw this guy overboard). Their temperamental differences notwithstanding the authorities decide they are prime candidates for mainstreaming; so after a few years in the ward they are given an apartment and a subsidy, and are unleashed on an unsuspecting world.
And once they hit the streets of Oslo, the fun really starts.
The play, adapted by British playwright Simon Brent, is based on the first volume of a popular series of novels by Ingvar Ambjørnsen, who traces the fortunes of our two goofball heroes. If you've had enough of Wallender and "The Girl Who ..." series, these books should be just the thing. We may not know much about Ambjørnsen now, but this play shows why his work has already sold millions elsewhere, and he should be well worth getting to know.
Director Kasi Campbell has assembled a fine cast here, headed by Guild founder Bill Largess as the title character: his Elling's prim ways and self-absorption give way, slowly but surely, and it is a joy to see how this fearful soul comes to embrace the wild world outside his apartment door. (Debbie Kennedy decks Largess out in some fine sweaters too). Elling's gift turns out to be poetry, which he's too shy to read aloud to anyone; so of course, one of the funniest plot twists comes when he hits upon an excellent scheme to publish ...
As much fun as it is to follow Elling, perhaps the most unforgettable performance comes in the form of Largess' cast-mate James Konicek, who hurls himself into the role of Kjell Bjarne with a reckless abandon that is both thrilling and hilarious to watch. He plays with all the angst of a 13-year-old trapped in a middle-aged man's body, and goes boldly where most men fear to go-half the time, minus trousers.
In a nod to Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, our heroes do have a nemesis or two: Tricia McCauley starts out the evening as nurse Gunn (pronounced 'Goon' and not without reason), who torments Elling and Kjell Bjarne before they even get to know each other. Once they are out on the streets (these two, happily, do manage to fly the coop) it turns out that the real enemy is their social worker, Frank Asli, who goes through the motions of helping them but who clearly wants them locked up again. As Frank, Dylan Myers has all the professional menace and condescension we have come to expect from some of our middle-class civil servants, who go out of their way to remind you how much they hate their jobs, and the folks they're paid to serve.
Just as it seems these two are about to lose their newfound freedom, an angel or two come their way-one in the form of an upstairs neighbor who is pregnant, drunk and passed out at their doorstep. Kjell Bjarne helps take care of this young woman-played sympathetically by McCauley again-and both seem a perfect match for each other. Elling's guardian angel turns out to be a retired, widower poet named Alfons; as played by Vincent Clark we can sense Alfons' resignation at the loss of his wife and his muse, as well as his longing to find his place once again in the literary pantheon. As his friendship with Elling develops, we realize it's not just the institutionalized who need angels, all of us do too.
Some of the most priceless moments of this production occur "outside"-in a restaurant, in a bar, or at a poetry slam from Hell that by itself is worth the price of admission. McCauley and Myers, talented character actors both, assume multiple roles throughout the evening, but are at their most outrageous as a pair of self-absorbed hipsters, convinced that their poems are for the ages (and we call these people sane?).
Kirk Kristlibas makes nice use of the admittedly shallow stage at the Undercroft, decking the scene out in furnishings and décor from, erm, a certain suburban Scandinavian furniture store whose name begins with "I". Marianne Meadows makes good use of the limited space as well, and manages to break the action out of the stage and into the crowd-a nice touch indeed. Frank DiSalvo's sound design has just the right ironic touch (strains of Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite come at just the right time), and Debbie Kennedy manages the motley costuming required with relish-remember, half the cast has no fashion sense, it's just as important for the costume to show incoherence as anything else.
This play saw a brief run in New York some years ago, and why on earth it wasn't a long-running Broadway hit is anyone's guess. The good news is that Broadway's loss is Washington's gain, and we can thank the folks at Washington Stage Giuld for offering us another gem of an evening.
ADVISORY: The play features mature content, so parental discretion is advised.
Performances of Elling are at the Undercroft Theatre, in the basement of Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachussetts Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C. For tickets and directions call 240-582-0050, or at the Washington Stage Guild website: