If you're a local theater aficionado, Pearce Bunting probably has been at the top of your must-see list since the Yale Drama School grad won a best-actor prize for one of his initial plays here, the Wilma Theater's Road, at the very first Barrymore Awards ceremony in 1995.
Since then, Bunting, 55, has defined the idea of an adventurous Philly actor, diving into an array of surprisingly un-handsome character roles. Most particularly, he's been driven to the edgy conceptualism of Theater Exile since the company's founding artistic director, Joe Canuso, directed him as a boozy slob-father in Tracy Letts' Killer Joe (2006).
"He's my kid's godfather, one of my best friends, and working with him is always a no-brainer," says Bunting of Canuso. "Besides, I have my own wing at the Chateau Canuso double-wide near Exile's Studio X" in South Philly.
During Bunting's ventures with Exile, he has played a one-handed marauder, a hapless moron, an emotionally neutered molester (in, respectively, A Behanding in Spokane, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, and Blackbird) and now, in Sharr White's Annapurna, a cagey, show-off poet named Ulysses, dying of emphysema in a filthy trailer that's invaded by his long-estranged wife.
"The playwright never signals how to breathe," says Bunting of White, referring to his stage affliction and the show's quick rhythms. "It's got very-Mamet-y-not-Mamet-y beats, you know, tons of really fast sentences with distinct punctuation."
Between the script's pace, naturalist dialogue, and his character having to wear a portable oxygen backpack, Annapurna is yeoman's work for an actor.
"But I love it," he says. "Whether I'm working five projects a year or three - and I'd rather work five - I'm at the top of my game, in a real zone, man. I'm accepting my body and who I am, inside and outside," says the self-described "beefy, middle-aged actor."
Hard, challenging work is what Bunting wants. Television audiences recognize him for his role as the bumbling, murderous Bill McCoy in Boardwalk Empire, HBO's Prohibition-era crime drama whose last season starts in the fall. Broadway knows him for his long run in the ABBA-drenched musical Mamma Mia. Still, a recent move to Minnesota (with his son, Milo, and wife, producer Stephanie Halleen, to be near her parents) has Bunting concerned.
"I have to make sure gigs are lined up, especially considering I want to be close to my family the majority of the year. Minneapolis is very Lutheran and reserved, and I'm this loud Philly guy. I'm working there, just not as much as I'd like."
A collaborative biographical Bertolt Brecht work, Rehearsing Failure, and a new Garrison Keillor play, Radio Man, are both in his immediate future in Minnesota, but he's still doggedly uncertain.
His current role in Boardwalk Empire isn't any more comforting. Despite the fact that Bill McCoy wasn't killed off last season ("a positive sign in the world of Empire") after doing something diabolical with a machete and a human head instead of the coconut the blade was intended for, Bunting is wary of his character's fate during the final season.
"I was doing Under the Whaleback at the Wilma, sitting outside the Art Museum, when I got an e-mail from my agent with pages for those scenes with the machete - " Bunting begins whooping.
"I thought the character was finally on his way to a through-line," he says. "Now, I'm not certain. No one's called. I did however get a Christmas card from [creator, head writer, and show-runner Terence] Winter, so that's cool."
And working with the brilliance of Annapurna and continued Theater Exile gigs ain't chopped liver. (The next intended Canuso/Bunting pairing is Edward Albee's epically emasculating Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, set for next season.)
"I was in my kitchen late at night when Canuso sent Annapurna, and read it on my iPod in one sitting," he recalls. "The first scene is Ulysses in a greasy apron the size of a loincloth, an oxygen hose up his nose, with a frying pan, sizzling with sausage. I knew it had to be our next collaboration."
Being teamed with Catharine Slusar, whom Bunting calls ballsy and smart, only made the need to do the play more immediate. "I'm more knee-jerk emotional than Catherine. Any intelligence I have comes from my ability to instantly recognize what an idiot I am."
Bunting goes as far as to say that Ulysses' situation (his marriage torn asunder by things he can't remember and those she can't forget) rings true in much of his life.
"My wife tells me I'm a horrible listener, but you get into patterns where you think you know what they're going to do next, not dealing with things in the present. This play might be helping my marriage a bit."
Parallels between Annapurna's script and Bunting's life don't end there. Ulysses and Bunting are the same age. There are questions of alcohol and recovery between them, to say nothing of each man's role as a father.
"This is prime material for a middle-aged man," says Bunting. "Passion projects like these that bring me back to Philly once a year are the things of which I'm most proud. If I'm going to do work that drags me from home, I have to make it count."
Presented by Theatre Exile through May 11 at Studio X, 1340 13th St.