"It doesn't matter what you do in this business," Eric McCormack reasons. "Anything that's successful is the thing that's going to pigeonhole you. When I started out in television, I did a lot of bad guys, and that's all people would take me seriously as - and now, of course, I have the opposite problem: Everyone thinks that I'm funny and gay."
Well, not everyone. His wife, Janet Holden, whom he met in his ne'er-do-well period during the filming of "Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years," has remained unconvinced, and as a direct result, on July 1, their pride and joy boy - Finnigan Holden McCormack - turns four.
Otherwise, for eight years, McCormack was lawyer Will Truman, the lavender half of NBC's "Will and Grace," the gay man who ingratiated himself into the homes of middle America by playing it conservatively close to the vest and rooming platonically with a straight female interior designer.
Those Thursday night house calls ended in mid-May, and by then he was already weeks-deep into a heterosexual overhaul, rehearsing a new play by Neil LaBute called Some Girl(s), which just opened at the Lucille Lortel and runs through July 8. Nothing butches up a guy better than LaBute, who is forever swan-diving into the bottomless pit of Men Behaving Badly for his dramatic mother lode. Given the places the playwright has been, McCormack has a light sentence here - certainly, a lightweight one.
For LaBute, this opus practically constitutes a romantic comedy. (In the intro to the play published by Faber and Faber, the author avers that this effort is his stab at the "gentle, wise and funny spirit" that can be found in the French films of Eric Rohmer.)
No mistaking McCormack in Some Girl(s). He is the only man on the premises - in fact, his character is named Guy - and he is illuminated by four old flames whom he bothers to rekindle on the eve of his marriage to a nurse 15 years his junior. They're scattered across the country, and he goes after them like - well, like a McCormick reaper.
"This guy is not a monster," insists the man who's playing him. "It seems like a very altruistic trip, his revisiting the four most influential women from his past. And he's doing it for all the right reasons - to right some wrongs, to start out with a clean slate - but, as the play moves on, we start to realize that this is another Neil LaBute male in sheep's clothing. Maybe he's even lying to himself about why he's doing what he's doing. I think he represents that side of most of us that's duplicitous."
McCormack owes the role to his Grace. "Debra Messing had read the play and said, 'If there's one role I'd wish for you to do when "Will and Grace" ends, it's this one.' It's more a slow transition into other things I can do. It's not like I'm suddenly playing an angry pimp. It takes my rhythms as a straight man and explores them. It is comic, but it's not sitcomic. What's similar is in the dialogue, in the way Neil writes - naturalistic and conversational.
"The main thing about this play is that, unlike Neil's earlier stuff, the women get a chance to slug back. Each of them is very different. There's no intermission, so I love the challenge of being there, uninterrupted for an hour and a half, with these great actresses."
The women come from different places, but, judging from the odd title punctuation, they have a common complaint against this man who chronically flees commitment. All are played, like McCormack, by fugitives from the small screen. Fran Drescher (a.k.a. "The Nanny") is Lindsay, the married older woman from Boston equipped with blowtorch; Maura Tierney from "ER" is Bobbi, the L.A. doctor who may be his true love; Judy Reyes of "Scrubs" is Tyler, the wild-and-crazy fling in Chicago; and Brooke Smith of "Law and Order" is Sam, his first broken heart, now a settled Seattle housewife.
If they loom a little like The Gang of Four ganging up on McCormack, then factor in the fact that his director is a woman: Jo Bonney. Last year she served up a deliciously malicious version of LaBute's Fat Pig, with a Drama Desk-nominated portrayal of a misogynist non-monster by Jeremy ("Entourage") Piven, and this season she directed A Soldier's Play with Taye Diggs, who recently had a stint on "Will and Grace" as Will's beau.
"Small world," McCormack shrugs. But he's doing his part to make it bigger, reinventing himself in a variety of mediums and positions. For Lifetime, he's executive-producing "Lovespring," an improv series about the world's worst dating service, and has already chipped in a guest shot. He sharpened his own improv skills by sacrificing himself five times to Broadway's The Play What I Wrote; this after Broadway-bowing the hard way: fearlessly, effectively following Craig Bierko's Robert Preston imitation of Harold Hill in the 2000 revival of The Music Man.
He's also being fit for a writer-director hat for a feature he hopes to have financing for next year: "What You Wish For," which he tailored for two namebrand stars, is based on the fantasy of all married folks (each allowing the other sleeping rights with a sexy celeb).
Meanwhile, back at acting, he hits the big screen in "The Sisters" as "Gary Sokol" (by any other name, Solyony in Chekhov's The Three Sisters). The performance is winning him awards and attention at film festivals. "He's a real departure from Will - a complete freak and so much fun to play. I shaved my head."
He did the original Chekhov during his five years at the Stratford Festival in Ontario - another little secret this Canadian kept during his days of media mega-fame. "Unequivocally, they were my best eight years," he says, "a professional experience impossible to top, so, rather than try to, I'd rather turn the tables."