When a movie star makes his Broadway debut, it usually prompts a critical overhaul of his entire body of work. A good turn on stage confirms that he’s a capital-A Actor; a bad one hints at a career built on the smoke and mirrors of movie-making. Brendan Fraser‘s debut in Elling, a comedy playing at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre until March 20, lands squarely in the middle. A warm and versatile presence on the big screen, the Mummy series star brings plenty of room-filling charisma to his role as Kjell, a hormone-ridden man-child who strikes up an odd-couple friendship with the neurotic Elling (True Blood‘s Denis O’Hare) in a Norwegian mental institution. But Fraser also brings his tendency, well-documented in over-the-top adventure pics like Furry Vengeance and Inkheart, to ham it up something awful. As Kjell and Elling tiptoe into the outside world by moving into an apartment together, Fraser acts out his character’s feelings with oversize, monkeyish gestures and birthday-clown facial expressions. (The fact that he’s sporting a considerable paunch and stringy hair doesn’t help much with his likability.)
Luckily for the show, Fraser’s overplaying is balanced out by a finely tuned, standout performance by O’Hare. His Elling is an anxious, compulsive mess, a wannabe poet who’s afraid of the world and drowning in guilt over the death of his mother. In O’Hare’s hands, Elling is also endearing, unpredictable, and very, very funny. The characters’ bumpy attempts at regular-life assimilation — Kjell falls for their pregnant neighbor (a bubbly, underused Jennifer Coolidge), while Elling befriends an eccentric writer (Richard Easton) — provide ample comic opportunities for both actors, but it’s O’Hare who gets the biggest laughs.
O’Hare would get more if the show provided a sturdier base. The script, adapted for English by Simon Bent from the same-titled Norwegian novel and the 2001 film it inspired, has an awkward, stop-and-start pacing that doesn’t allow for dramatic momentum. (The play premiered in London in 2007.) Meanwhile, Doug Hughes’ direction has the actors racing back-and-forth on a bare-bones stage with no regard for logic — the apartment’s imaginary interior walls are established and then promptly run through by the characters. That might sound like a quibble, but it’s a symptom of the show’s general lack of polish, which occasionally gives it the air of a celebrity table-read. The play certainly has some funny moments, and a few poignant ones too. But like its marquee star, Elling doesn’t feel quite ready for the Broadway stage. B-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)