Bill Pullman's goofy good looks and average-Joe demeanor have served him well in cinema, from the "stupidest person on the face of the Earth" in his first feature (1986's "Ruthless People") to the President of the United States in his top-grosser (1996's "Independence Day"). He has even replayed, for latter-day TV, such Grade-A Americans as James Stewart's George Bailey and Gary Cooper's "The Virginian" — but he has never better used them than in his Broadway debut as a man who strays from his marriage into a barnyard.
Not a simple subject for audience empathy, you'll agree — but there's a questing kind of confusion in his earnest face that enables Pullman to pull it off to everyone's satisfaction . . . except for this year's Tony nominating committee. His egregious absence among the Best Actor contenders produced the greatest hue and cry on Broadway since Dustin Hoffman's Willy Loman was similarly slighted 18 years ago. Indeed, Pullman got more press for not being nominated than whatzizname did for winning — plus, there was that lovely consolation prize: the Tony for Best Play to Edward Albee's The Goat or Who is Sylvia?
Meanwhile, the beat and the bestiality go on at the Golden Theatre. Getting Albee's goat hasn't been easy. Beneath the extreme premise is a compassionate plea for tolerance for anyone different than ourselves, but Pullman — and, to an equally large measure, Mercedes Ruehl, as his shattered, china-shattering wife — made that bizarre metaphor into believable theatre.
"It felt like a rock 'n' roll event when we first started," Pullman recalls of the painful previews. "There was a lot of energy released and a lot of emotions pro and con. If you were somehow unnerved by the play, you were empowered in those early days to let off steam. For me, it was a nightmare. I had to be extremely earnest in my grief, and to have people laughing at me was soul-crunching, like a weird performance-art piece. They were laughing at things outside of my control. I didn't know if there was a glass ceiling with the part where you could only go so far and no matter what you do you'd always be on a slippery slope, every night in a kind of purgatory waiting for thumbs up/thumbs down."
The play fell into place, preview by preview, one fragment at a time — and a better actor, bordering on brilliant, came out the other side. "There'd be moments where I'd say, 'Yeah, that was it.' For the most part, it was the realization that the audience watched. "A friend sent me an article he'd clipped from Saturday Review in 1970, something Edward wrote about the health of the theatre. It said the primary value of theatre is to tell us who we are, and the health of the theatre is determined by how much we want to know. The fact that this play has an audience means we're healthy enough to want to know who we are. It has paradoxical moments where you have two conflicting feelings at the same time. If audiences encounter that in the play, that's an important part of what theatre is."