David Harbour & Bill Pullman: “Mad House reflects the climate of America”

The two actors talk turning from smash hit TV to the stage for Theresa Rebeck's new black comedy Mad House

As the stars of two Netflix smash hits in their own right, not to mention the wealth of blockbusters between them, it’s an almost jarring spectacle to see Bill Pullman and David Harbour in the everyday setting of a modest, family kitchen in the opening moments of Mad House.

Except, this new play from writer Theresa Rebeck and director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, which premiered last week at the West End’s Ambassadors theatre, presents a family dynamic far from the everyday (you would hope), as we see Pullman’s petulant patriarch Daniel spit out with disdain the butternut squash soup Harbour’s Michael had made — seemingly begrudgingly but ultimately lovingly — for his father.

“He’s a giant toad who abuses his family ruthlessly,” says Harbour of his counterpart’s role. “I’m sure he would claim that he’s wildly misunderstood, but from my perspective he is this almost Dostoevskian patriarch who is at the centre of this mad house.” I look to Pullman, who looks back with the unmistakable twinkle in his eye: “The best part of that is that I’m at the centre of it”.

The two laugh with each other, a long way from their dynamic on stage, where unbelievably callous taunts get hurled at each other faster than the soup. Daniel is on death’s door, visible from Pullman’s pale, gaunt makeup but confirmed when Michael announces that the “death doctor is here”. The hospice carer, played tenderly by Akiya Henry, has her own healthy dose of bite – something Daniel evidently approves of as he reluctantly begins to accept her help. But her effect on the nihilistic and pent-up Michael, who we learn suffered a breakdown and spent time in a psychiatric ward, is a refreshing and warm presence. The same cannot be said for siblings Pam (Sinéad Matthews) and Ned (Stephen Wight), who soon begin to circle like vultures hoping to get a fat share of the family deed.

Photo by Marc Brenner

Though no doubt Harbour and Pullman will be recognised by many for their recent roles in Stranger Things and The Sinner respectively, the two actors have a historic love for the stage, and though later working together on the 2014 film The Equalizer, first met when Pullman came backstage after seeing Harbour in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway. “To know we were coming from the same roots was good”, says Pullman.

The last time the Independence Day and Spaceballs star was on the West End stage was in 2019 as Joe Keller in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons at The Old Vic. Miller’s recurrent themes of family and money that haunt the physical setting of the American household are in some ways reflected in Mad House. “It reminds me of The Price or even The Crucible in its bigger themes,” says Harbour. “Miller is very much an American playwright, but I don’t think he gets lost here at all. You guys do him here more than we do I think, because you respond so much to those themes, I think this play is very similar in that way.”

That said, you won’t find the many shocking laughs here in any of Miller’s classics. “Theresa is a very gifted joke writer,” says Harbour, “Daniel and Michael have some very classically structured joke lines that just register even when you’re playing them straight. But it’s also definitely something that night-to-night can take on somewhat of a different track based on the room itself. To me that’s one of the great things about theatre; it’s a living document, like the event is happening, and it sometimes happens in different ways.”

Photo by Marc Brenner

Pullman though, who worked with Rebeck on her 2017 film Trouble, is eager to add the significance of her comedy, which serves more as a way of portraying how her characters view the world. “Her characters are kind of performative, so it makes telling funny things or saying things in a funny way as a way of survival. It doesn’t feel like she’s just trying to get a hit unless it means something.”

In his own reading of it, the palpable and relentless hatred of Mad House points to the wider dynamic of seemingly ever-growing social tensions in America. “The octane of just assaulting each other is just at a level that’s so insane, but I think it reflects her own concerns about the country. How can these people say these things to each other? How can they ever arrive at some moment of peace and reconciliation? Wow, this is sustained, it’s so much vitriol, and that feels like our climate for America in a way.”

For all the distain on show at Mad House, has returning to the immediacy of the stage been refreshing after investing several years in demanding TV series? Harbour jokes that the play coinciding with the release of Stranger Things latest season has got him out of doing a lot of press (and yes, he confirms, everyone waiting backstage had tried to wrangle spoilers out of him), but seems to suggest that the process has awoken a new chapter in his acting career: “One of the most extraordinary things about this production that we are doing is that it feels alive. That’s why I want to do theatre as opposed to film, why I want to come back. We’re not locking it, we’re letting it live, and I think you’ll feel that. The audiences that have come so far I think really feel like they’re a part of something that’s different night-to-night.”

Mad House The Play | Behind the Scenes at the Photoshoot

Mad House runs until 4 September at the Ambassadors Theatre. Limited tickets available here.