Hayden Spencer and Darren Gilshenan.

Hayden Spencer and Darren Gilshenan. Photo: Joe Armao

THERE is a dangerous edge to the comedy, Elling, which opens at the Melbourne Theatre Company this week. The two central characters are released into society after years in an institution only to find coping with every-day living presents insurmountable hurdles.

But Darren Gilshenan, who is playing the lead character for a second time, is reassuring there is no risk of the audience laughing at the antics of the mentally impaired.

''There is a deep humanity at play,'' he says. ''It reveals that everybody wants the same things.''

Gilshenan, whom a Sydney critic called the country's finest comic actor, says the play is not laugh-a-minute. ''There is a real darkness under it that makes everything bitter-sweet.''

He first played Elling in a Sydney Theatre Company season directed by Pamela Rabe three years ago and was happy to accept an invitation by Rabe to star in the MTC's new production about an odd Norwegian pair providing ''brain and brawn'' for each other.

Elling is a fastidious and paranoid inmate of a mental institution where he was confined following his mother's death when he was 40. He comes to share a room with Kjell Bjarne (Hayden Spencer), who appears to be Elling's opposite: uncouth, unwashed, a compulsive masturbator.

Spencer says his character is deeply troubled and socially inept after being institutionalised since he was young. When the pair are released together into the community, every-day tasks such as answering the phone pose ''enormous difficulties''.

''Kjell borrows Elling's brain and uses him as a guide in their new environment,'' Spencer says.

Gilshenan says the characters are incapable of living normal lives. ''Going to a restaurant is utterly confusing for them. They face seemingly insurmountable hurdles with only each other to rely on.''

The play is based on the original novel by Ingvar Ambjornsen which was adapted into an award-winning Norwegian film before it was transformed for the English stage by Simon Bent.

It retains the scale of the film, covering six months and more than 40 different locations. ''It's an enormous journey,'' Gilshenan says, pointing out that Emily Goddard who plays Kjell's girlfriend also plays three other female characters.

Brisbane-based Spencer toured Australia and Mexico with the Cirque du Soleil show, Dralion, over four years until 2010.

While there are no red noses in Elling, he relies on his internal clowning mechanism for the part. ''I thought of myself as an actor and a street theatre dude but Cirque du Soleil said I could play a clown and suddenly I had a title,'' he says.

He found life under the big top very different from the theatre. ''There wasn't big money for rehearsals because performance was valued higher,'' he says. ''There was also enormous improvisation that I was never fully comfortable with but it was an awesome experience.''

Spencer, who has named his dog No Touring Policy, said he and his wife are considering moving to Melbourne after being in the cast of last year's Australia! The Show! production at the MTC, which he also co-wrote.

Gilshenan is also an expert on clowning, which he teaches in Sydney, as well as other forms of comedy and Shakespeare. ''All comedy is based on fear and dangerous situations that characters find themselves in,'' he says. ''In Elling, they are on the edge of insanity.''

He says the play's wide emotional range extends from naturalism to magic realism. ''When the characters' imagination is played out on stage it even includes surrealism. One minute they are incredibly sad and anxious and the next the audience is laughing at their buffoonery.''

But he says the play is ultimately life-affirming. ''It portrays marginal characters enduring incidents that go horribly wrong before that bloom into healthy individuals,'' he says.

''This is different to much of current drama that goes the other way into tragedy. Here the potential is what could go wrong and comedy comes from how that is negated.''

Elling opens at the Melbourne Theatre Company's Southbank Theatre on Thursday until December 8.