After a career spent mostly in TV, Matthew Perry, best known for “Friends” and fresh off three seasons in CBS’s recently cancelled “The Odd Couple,” is starring Off Broadway in the play he wrote, “The End of Longing.” The show premiered last year in London — where it did well with audiences, but was largely panned by critics — and opens tonight in a rewritten version produced by MCC Theater. Perry sat down with Variety to talk about the play and what he wants to do next — and to gamely field the inevitable questions about “Friends.”
After so much time in TV, why did you decide to write a play?
I’ve written for television a lot over the last 10 years, but I always wrote with a partner. I was scared to write something alone, because I knew that I was good with dialogue but I was worried about structure and story. But then one summer, a couple years ago, I was bored and I decided I was gonna face the page on my own. So I sat there on my computer, I had no idea what I was gonna write, and a series of monologues came out of my head. Which is a very theater kind of device, so I realized that I was writing a play. I just kept going until I finished. It flew out of me, this play. I finished it in about 10 days. I guess I had something to say.
How personal is the story?
It’s personal, but it’s an exaggerated form of me. Jack, the character I play, is a much different drunk than I was. What the play aims to do is tell a couple of messages. The main one is that there’s a popular notion out there that people don’t change, but I don’t believe that’s true. All of the characters in this play change and become better. That’s a big message. And also, I try to use humor as a device to tell a story about addiction and how difficult it is to overcome.
How did you end up doing the play in London?
I had done another play, “Sexual Perversity in Chicago,” in London in 2003 with Lindsay Posner [director of “The Winslow Boy” on Broadway], so I sent it to Lindsay just to get a professional’s advice about whether it was any good or not. This was like the day after I finished. He said, “Can I direct this?” Then he gave me notes. The funny thing is, I wrote a play thinking I’d get no notes, but I got more notes than I ever did in television. I got 60 rounds of notes! I got two years of notes!
Do theater notes feel different from typical TV notes?
Notes in television are generally homogenizing notes, which are difficult to get when you’re trying to do something different. This play is very edgy, and sort of dark. This would never make network television in any way, shape or form, and this is the kind of stuff that I like.
Did you read your reviews in London?
I made the mistake of reading some critics in London, and I will not do that again. Critics go after Hollywood actors no matter what they do, however good or bad the work is. I don’t know, I’m very proud of the work. I mean, I remember certain sentences from reviews I read 20 years ago, so this time I’m gonna stay away. Of course, if I get bored on a Tuesday, I might Google it.
You worked a lot on the play between London and New York. What sort of changes did you make?
We did two workshops after London. I turned a lot of those monologues into dialogue, and then I worked on character development, with the main characters’ romance and then the building of the relationship between Jack and his friend Jeffrey. Also, in London, there were 150 swear words in the play. I think there are 35 now.
How does the play fit into your broader TV career?
No one’s going to write a part for me like this one. People still see me as Chandler, the goofy, sarcastic guy, and this is not that. I don’t think that anybody’s out there thinking, “I’ll write this for Perry,” other than me. So I did that, and I think probably the next thing I do will be written by me, too. In the second half of my life, I don’t want to do your standard sitcom television. I want to do edgier, darker, dramatic stuff.
That’s pretty different from what you’re known for.
Well, everybody wants to do something different from what they’ve been doing. I was just on a sitcom for three years, so of course I want to do something different. I’ll probably just want to be in parades after this. But look, I was on a sitcom for 10 years, and it was the greatest. It gave me every opportunity I ever had. Even doing this play is happening because I was on that show.
With TV in the midst of a nostalgia boom – “Roseanne,” “Will & Grace” — you must get asked every single day about a “Friends” reunion.
I have this recurring nightmare – I’m not kidding about this. When I’m asleep, I have this nightmare that we do “Friends” again and nobody cares. We do a whole series, we come back, and nobody cares about it. So if anybody asks me, I’m gonna say no. The thing is: We ended on such a high. We can’t beat it. Why would we go and do it again?
So what’s next?
In my head I have this TV project that I’d write. That’s what the fantasy for me is, next. Somewhere on television. But my brain just thinks of darker sh— than what is expected on a four-camera comedy, or at least on the ones that are on TV now. What I see is serious stuff that, as a bonus, happens to be funny.