If gifts were always so aptly selected, holidays would be happier times. In the funny and touching play “Elling”— now on view in a mostly rewarding Washington Stage Guild production — the title character, an uptight, agoraphobic writer, gives a Christmas present to his lunk of a roommate, Kjell Bjarne. The gift — a novelty pen decorated with an image of a woman who appears to shed her clothes — is the perfect offering. As played by actor James Konicek, Kjell Bjarne tears off the wrapping paper and starts to exude squirmy rapture. His mouth gapes; his eyes widen; he almost seems to bounce up and down; and he utters, in his booming voice, a series of happy exclamations that can’t be printed in this newspaper.
The moment epitomizes the quirky charm of director Kasi Campbell’s “Elling” when the production is at its best. Benefiting greatly from Konicek’s depiction of an endearingly uncouth and childlike Kjell Bjarne, “Elling” becomes an affecting and hopeful portrait of a friendship between two mismatched oddballs, whose relationship ultimately wins each of them a new lease on life. Campbell’s direction won’t win any prizes for inventiveness — scene follows scene in somewhat plodding fashion, with exits and entrances sometimes looking stodgy — and Bill Largess’s portrayal of Elling lacks depth and assuredness. But a couple of vibrant acting turns, in addition to Konicek’s, help bring out the story’s humor, poignancy and narrative pull.
The production is billed as the area premiere of “Elling,” adapted by British playwright Simon Bent from a set of novels by Norwegian writer Ingvar Ambjornsen. Ambjornsen’s tetralogy follows Elling and Kjell Bjarne, who meet as patients in a mental health facility, and who subsequently become roommates in an Oslo apartment when a government policy dictates that they be given a chance at living in mainstream society. Too many slipups, and they will be sent back to the institution. (Brent’s play, which is also based on the screenplay for a 2002 film titled “Elling,” was reportedly a hit in London. The play also had a blink-and-you-missed-it Broadway run in 2010.)
The duo certainly have enough neuroses to make their Oslo life an uphill climb: Kjell Bjarne is loud, impetuous and obsessed with sex, which he has never personally experienced. Elling is a prudish control freak and aspiring poet who is terrified of leaving the apartment. Both men are wary of their social worker Frank Asli (the terrific Dylan Myers infuses the character with rakish cynicism), who bursts in on them periodically to give pep talks and lectures. But, thanks in part to the moral support the roommates offer each other — in between squabbles and flare-ups of jealousy — each begins to flourish.
Often seen excitably striding around in his flannels, parka and hunting cap, or curled up on a bed in an attack of crippling angst, Konicek’s Kjell Bjarne is irresistible. By contrast, Largess (who is Washington Stage Guild’s artistic director) doesn’t inhabit his character fully, though he does exhibit prim, pursed-lip mannerisms and vocal patterns that seem superficially right for Elling. (Debbie Kennedy designed the costumes, including Elling’s favorite trench coat and beret. Kirk Kristlibas designed the simple set, consisting of pallet beds and other furniture and a few wallpaper-like panels.)
Tricia McCauley ably juggles various roles, including a hilariously strident poet glimpsed at a poetry reading. Myers channels another delectably tone-deaf versifier at the same event. Such cameos help relay glimpses of the world as Elling and Kjell Bjarne experience it — a loopy and unnerving place where opportunity and failure beckon, and where a chance acquaintanceship can prove to be a lifeline.
Based on Ingvar Ambjornsen’s novels, adapted by Axel Hellstenius in collaboration with Petter Næss. English adaptation by Simon Bent. Directed by Kasi Campbell; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sound, Frank DiSalvo Jr.; fight director, John Gurski. With Vincent Clark. About 2 hours and 10 minutes. Tickets: $40-50. Through May 18 at the Undercroft Theatre, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Call 240-582-0050 or visit stageguild.org.
Wren is a freelance writer.