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Building Character: Denis O'Hare The Tony Award winner plays an offbeat poet in "Elling"

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

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Welcome to Building Character, TDF's ongoing series about actors and how they create their roles

When we first meet Elling, the title character in the Broadway play now at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, he's hiding in a wardrobe. From his roommate. In a mental hospital.

His behavior is just as quirky in the outside world: Somewhere between his disastrous attempt to order pizza and his decision to hide original poems in boxes of sauerkraut, it becomes clear that Elling is not like other guys.

Yet there is something familiar about him. Elling charms because Elling, his roommate Kjell, and their pregnant neighbor Reidun are strange people facing everyday problems. When they're ordering in a restaurant and there's no more soup, they don't just get disappointed:  They have a conniption fit. We can laugh at them because we recognize our own tendency to turn small nuisances into global news.

Of course, getting us to laugh is delicate work. "This play is a tightrope," says Denis O'Hare, who plays Elling. "It has a very narrow shelf you can exist on. If we are too casual about these guys, then we don't pay homage to their unique circumstance. You kind of go, 'Well, why is he in an asylum? He looks like a normal Joe.' But if we go in the direction of making them too mentally ill, the audience won't laugh because you're not going to make fun of someone you feel is ill."

When O'Hare read the play, he didn't even consider Elling's illness. "I approached him as 'normal.' I approached him as a typical character like Mercutio," he says. "For me, the challenge was to make sure that I didn't overlook the diagnostic aspects. I had to do some reading on Asperger's and think about the fact, 'Well, he's actually a little different because of these things.'"

Ultimately, he still approaches Elling as a person first. He says, "It's helpful to look at real mental illness, but then you have to leave it all behind and kind of just go, 'But these guys are human, and they're dealing with a human problem, so what is that?' In this case, it's the discovery of friendship, the testing of friendship, and the triumph of friendship."

O'Hare concedes, however, that "it's one thing to have an innate understanding of a character; it's another thing to be able to actually enact that. There's always the fear that you're not going to be able to translate what you feel inside into something that other people are getting.

He learns what's working by listening to director Doug Hughes and co-stars like Brendan Fraser (Kjell) and Jennifer Coolidge (Reidun.) Preview audiences have been helpful, too: "We didn't know what was funny," O'Hare says. "Audiences teach you what's funny because they laugh at things that we never considered."

As he's performed the play, O'Hare has become especially fond of a moment when Kjell leaves to investigate a strange noise. He's only gone for a few seconds, but Elling goes ballistic, assuming his friend will never return. And when Kjell comes back, he immediately snaps out of his tantrum.

"We've played with a comic version of that and then a real version of that," O'Hare says. "That to me is the hardest thing about the character, is letting him have absolutely pure emotions and then putting them away, back to normal."

So how does he do it? Partly, he relies on tools he picked up from studying the acting guru Michael Chekhov. Partly, he relies on his own years of experience. "A lot of it's just technique," he says. "Every night, you've got to hit that narrow ledge, and sometimes you don't hit it. Sometimes, you can't get the whip around fast enough. But you've got to keep aiming for it."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor.