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Fraser, O'Hare in odd-but-endearing 'Elling'

Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser in "Elling," directed

Denis O'Hare and Brendan Fraser in "Elling," directed by Doug Hughes at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

Classic entertainment is filled with funny and sad tales of unlikely male friendships - Oscar and Felix in "The Odd Couple," George and Lennie in "Of Mice and Men," Mutt and Jeff in the comic strip.

To those, Broadway audiences are being dared to add Kjell Bjarne and Elling, odd-couple housemates in a psychiatric halfway house in - no kidding - Oslo, Norway.

"Elling," Simon Bent's hit British adaptation of a popular Norwegian novel and movie, has been restaged by Doug Hughes with a wonderful, unlikely pair, Brendan Fraser and Denis O'Hare. This is a strange little comedy, which has the quaint feel of a foreign fable and the '60s cuckoo's-nest romanticization of the troubled and adorable mentally ill.

And so it really should be annoying. Instead, it is oddly charming, even winning. Or, as Elling says when his friend is described as odd, "I prefer the English expression 'rare.' As in uncommon."

The chemistry comes in the casting. O'Hare is a virtuoso of such high-strung needy eccentrics as the gay baseball fanatic in "Take Me Out" and the meanest royal vampire in "True Blood." Here he finds astonishing shadings on internalized neuroses as Elling, the aging mama's boy.

But the real surprise is Fraser, the formerly boyish comic-action-movie star, making an altogether endearing Broadway debut as the huge and ebullient, simple and slobby Kjell.

The men could be different subspecies of human. Kjell, in his filthy undershirt and Snoopy doughboy hat, is a sweet hulk whose pores are almost too open to hunger and trust. Elling, with a wary face of sunken angles and pants up to his armpits, guards his nervous system against exposure.

They do step out of their spare state-supported apartment, and attempt to live in the so-called normal world. They meet, among others, a mysterious, famous poet (the monumentally trustworthy Richard Easton) and the bemused social worker (Jeremy Shamos) and the pregnant drunken neighbor (the endearingly vulgar Jennifer Coolidge).

Hughes stages all this with precision-loopy timing and the courage not to Americanize the strangeness for easy consumption. It's an uncommon choice. Hope it works.

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