“Run,” a new romantic comedy with twists to flatter a pretzel festival, follows former lovers who are escaping their lives. And it arrives when most of us can’t even escape our own homes. To watch the show now is to entertain an impossible fantasy. No, it’s not receiving a text from your college ex, not upending your life to meet said ex, not the subsequent hotel room sex, though “Run” does include all that.
It’s the running itself — by plane and train and pleasure boat and hitchhiked ride from a shy taxidermist.
“The idea of being able to go anywhere, the idea of being able to be close to people by choice, I wonder how that will color people’s experience of the show,” Merritt Wever, who plays the female lead in “Run,” said.
“Run,” which introduces the first of its seven episodes on April 12, opens with Wever’s Ruby, neck-deep in ennui in a Ralphs parking lot. Her phone vibrates with a one-word text: “RUN.” Moments later, Ruby is en route to the airport, on her way to meet Billy (Domhnall Gleeson), the former boyfriend she hasn’t seen in 17 years.
Work on the show began a few years ago, or using a more liberal timeline, a decade earlier, with a private joke between the series’ creator, Vicky Jones, and her longtime collaborator Phoebe Waller-Bridge (“Fleabag”), with whom she founded a theater company in 2007. The two women, temp workers at the time, had made a pact.
“Whenever we were in a situation we wanted to get out of,” Jones said by phone, “we would whisper ‘Run!’ to the other one, and we’d take each other’s hand and run out of there, and keep on running.”
They actually ran only once. “At a festival,” Jones explained. “We left the people we were with and ran to a party in the woods. And that felt very glorious at the time.” But the pact guaranteed an escape — from a job, a get-together, a relationship.
“Simply knowing that we could run and that we would always do it together was enough to feel free wherever we were,” wrote Waller-Bridge, an executive producer of “Run,” in an email.
Two or three years ago, when Jones, who directed the stage version of “Fleabag,” set out to write a romance, she thought of that pact, reconfiguring a story of female friendship into a tale of onetime sweethearts. Ruby, who had once planned on a career designing houses, has since become a homemaker. Billy is a motivational speaker who no longer believes his self-actualizing blather.
They exchange texts and meet as agreed, in the cramped aisle of a cross-country Amtrak train departing from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.
Billy and Ruby are, as Jones put it, each other’s fish that got away. But there the story gets slippery. Are they running toward each other or away from themselves? Is their reunion a good idea or a really bad one? “Run” declines to comment.
“I’m just obsessed with the mystery behind the closed doors of a relationship,” Jones said, speaking from the London apartment where she was sheltering with her partner and their 14-month-old son. “How people really behave when no one’s looking, the language and the jokes and the way that people love each other, it’s all a bit of a mystery, isn’t it?”
Jones has written two plays — “Touch” and “The One” — that take a skeptical view of sex and relationships. This show is more equivocal. “I’ve had this ambition to write something that’s got elements of that jaggedness, but is closer to reality,” Jones said. “Something where you can actually see the love and feel the love between these people.”
You can see and feel the love in “Run.” Plus a cavalcade of other emotions — lust, rage, pain, remorse, hope, anxiety, spite — usually several at the same time. Outside the Amtrak train, pixel-mapped scenery flits by. Inside, the emotional landscape is maybe even more varied. Jones’s characters are as layered as elaborate wedding cakes — complicated, contradictory, less aspirational and more recognizably human than most romantic comedy types.
“It’s very funny and, because it’s so truthful, sort of painful to watch at times,” Waller-Bridge said of Jones’s work. “Usually we try and hide those parts of ourselves from the person we are romancing, but Vicky put this couple on a train, across tiny tables and in tiny cabins, where there is nowhere to hide.”
To play Ruby and Billy, Jones cast Wever, who had never starred in a romantic comedy, and Gleeson (“About Time”), who had. Wever, Jones said, brought wit and nuance and a kind of “perfect imperfection” to her part. Gleeson offered a sensitivity and an understated sex appeal. They were sexy together, and mutually vulnerable.
Filming meant pushing into all of the characters’ incongruities, often in the narrow aisles and cramped roomettes of a set built to look like an Amtrak train. In the pilot, the director Kate Dennis’s camera stays whisper-close to the actors, registering each pupil dilation and lip lick and sniffle.
When he read the first script, Gleeson couldn’t decide whether he liked Billy. “I liked being around him,” he said, speaking from his apartment in a Dublin suburb, “because things happen when he’s around. But I was also slightly suspicious of his motives.” (This from the man who had just played General Hux.) He stayed suspicious, enjoying the tension between Billy’s bravado and vulnerability, selfishness and generosity. The characters, he said, change from episode to episode and scene to scene, right before our eyes.
Though she has two supporting actress Emmys (“Nurse Jackie,” “Godless”), Wever never imagined starring in a series. “I’m not the kind of person who dreams or is optimistic or hopeful,” she said, speaking from her apartment. (“I am alone, and I am in Brooklyn,” she explained. “I don’t know why it felt so dark to say it like that.”)
A romantic comedy seemed even less likely. She remembered saying to herself, just before the “Run,” audition, “Girls like me don’t get these kinds of parts.”
But she did get Ruby. Then she sent Jones a panicked email insisting that she couldn’t play what she called “the girl.”
“I can’t be that thing,” she wrote. Jones told her Ruby could be all the things.
“I see her as capable of operating on many levels,” Jones wrote. “And of having many layers. Of knowing she has this extraordinary stuff deep down, but fearing what will happen if she lets it all out. And I feel like that’s what you see in her, too.”
As revealed in the first episode (mild spoiler ahead), Ruby is, among other things, a mother. Because Wever seems to worry about everything (sirens in the background, whether people will accept her in the role, whether she is answering my questions with even borderline coherency), I asked her if she worried about viewers liking Ruby, who leaves not only her husband but also her children.
“Not for a second,” she said. “That is not my job. I see her as somebody who was trying to come back to life, and I would not for a second as an actor, or just as a person in the world, want to curb a single, solitary one of her appetites.”
Besides, Jones had done some of that worrying for her, saying that she was grateful to have had a baby before she finished the scripts. “To write a woman walking away from her kids, it’s a bold thing to do at the best of times, let alone when you’re clueless about how it feels to have a child,” she said.
Jones hopes that viewers will root for Ruby, and for Billy, too. “Because I think they’re really in love,” she said. “And the hope is you get to be with the person that you love the most.”
Jones is with the people she loves the most. Wever and Gleeson are alone. I asked all of them where they would run if they could, responsibly. Jones wanted to get out of London and into the countryside. “As far away from people as possible because you can’t walk really here,” she said. “You can’t walk on the pavements really.” Gleeson dreamed of strolling into Dublin.
Wever imagined taking the five-minute route to her best friend’s house and giving her a hug, which hurt to even think about. It is so easy a journey and so impossible.
“Watching this show is going to be strange,” she said. “And depending on what’s going on for you, a potentially painful reminder of a not-so-distant past that is not really in anyone’s grasp right now.”