NEW YORK — For nine years, Josh Radnor played a hopeless romantic on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother.” So he’s the perfect person to ask if his latest project is a good for a date night.
Radnor is on Broadway in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” a blistering play about a dinner party that spirals into a shouting match about race, Islam and culture. He thinks for a moment before taking the bait.
“It might be a nice litmus test. If your date doesn’t want to talk about it afterward, you can go, ‘This is not the right person for me,’” he says. “It’s a conversation-starter. Or it could be a relationship-ender. It depends on your circumstances.”
What’s pretty clear is that Radnor seems eager these days to spark honest conversations after spending so long having his lines delivered with a laugh track. He’s happily back in the theater again and he’s playing with big ideas.
“I always describe doing series television this way: You go to the gym every day but you’re only allowed to work out your right arm,” he says over coffee. “So your right arm is really stacked. The rest of you is withering.”
In “Disgraced,” the 40-year-old Radnor plays a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art who spars with the dinner party’s host and may not be all he appears to be. It’s a far cry from playing Ted Mosby, the whiny, weird loser of “How I Met Your Mother” who often bungled at love.
“As charming and lovely as that stuff was, it just wasn’t me. When I first started I was looking for points of identification with that character. I was like, ‘Oh this is like me.’ And as the show went on, I was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t like me.’ It became more fun to play when I realized this guy wasn’t me.”
The real Radnor is fan of Grantland, who reads books like “The Metaphysical Club.” He consulted with a real Whitney curator to get into character. While making the sitcom, he wrote and directed two movies — “Happythankyoumoreplease” and “Liberal Arts.” He sends his director texts over the weekend about possible line changes.
“Josh is a 24-hour thinker. Ideas are percolating around the clock,” says Kimberly Senior, who directs “Disgraced” and had never seen his TV work before they met. “He never stops working.”
Radnor’s stage work includes taking over from Jason Biggs in “The Graduate” opposite Kathleen Turner and appearing with Neil Patrick Harris in Jon Robin Baitz’s The Paris Letter” in 2004 a few months before they would team up for the sitcom.
His return to Broadway was put in motion by a fan letter. He read Akhtar’s novel “American Dervish” and, considering it fantastic, located an email address for the author. The two struck up a correspondence and later bonded over coffee — and God.
“I’m always on the lookout for expressions of faith that aren’t guarded or ironic. It’s kind of hip and cooler to be constitutionally atheistic and believe ‘Life if meaningless.’ I just don’t buy it and it annoys me,” he says.
Though Radnor wasn’t available when “Disgraced” made its off-Broadway premiere in 2012, the end of the run of “How I Met Your Mother” this spring meant he could jump aboard when it came to Broadway.
But not without first feeling some blowback from fans upset by the way the show ended. Radnor’s Ted finally ended up with the character Robin only after his first wife died.
“If you watch the series from minute No. 1, it was true to itself. It was always about a switcheroo. It was always not what you thought you were watching,” he said. “So I felt like the idea that we just watch some people walk off into the sunset together felt not what the DNA of the show was.”
Radnor said he’s profoundly grateful for the sitcom, saying he’s been showered with “blessing and opportunity” despite the “relentlessness” of playing one character for so long.
“When I left and I was looking out at the landscape of what was ahead, I just thought, ‘Well, the greatest thing I can say about all of this is that I can live a creative life.’ That’s all I ever really wanted.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits