Stumbling block A: the still-baffling circumstances that led to Pee-wee's 19-year disappearing act.
The actor's publicist at the time described Reubens as "emotionally devastated by the embarrassment of the situation." Professionally, the damage was done: The arrest made international news. Even though stars such as Bill Cosby, Joan Rivers and Cyndi Lauper publicly supported Reubens, Toys R Us pulled his dolls from stores and CBS moved quickly to take reruns of "Pee-wee's Playhouse's" final season off the air.
Reubens points out that he had already declined the network's offer of a two-year contract renewal. Moreover, he says he was burned out.
"I wrote it, directed it, produced it and starred in it," Reubens said of "Playhouse." "It was so much work. I was like a shell of a person.
"I took a year off," he continued. "And at the end of it, I went, 'Wow.' And I took another year off."
In the intervening years, he remained in Hollywood, staying afloat with numerous appearances in television shows including " Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Reno 911!" and " 30 Rock," voice-over work for various animated series and movies, and character parts in such films as "Batman Returns," "Mystery Men" and "Blow."
But no more Pee-wee. "I took time to decompress," Reubens said.
At the playhouse
During a recent afternoon rehearsal, cast members ran lines inside a soundstage on Hollywood's Sunset Gower Studios lot with Reubens quietly yet forcefully multitasking as co-writer, producer and star. (Bill Steinkellner and John Paragon, one of the show's costars, helped adapt the "Pee-wee Herman Show" from Reubens' original 1981 production.)
He politely questioned the way an understudy was billed on the program's title page, second-guessed the "watery" nature of a below-the-belt sound effect and probed director Alex Timbers about the timing on the "beat" of a joke. Pee-wee-esque props lay strewn about the space: tighty-whitey underwear, inflatable beach balls, a foam puppet version of North America with an expressive face.
Reubens mitigated his authority with a self-deprecating aside. "Don't listen to me," he told Timbers. "I'm completely stupid."
"But when you get that laugh, the cockles of your heart will be warmed," Timbers demurred.
The inevitable one-liner came right back at the director. "I don't feel comfortable with you talking about my cockles," said actor Drew Powell, who portrays a character named Bear.
Off-set, Reubens acknowledged that the show's producers and his cast had been prodding him about any plans for the production. But the performer said he has no plans to extend its run beyond Los Angeles, despite tantalizing offers.
"The big question now is, 'Why don't you commit to doing it for a year? Do it all over the world,' " Reubens said. "The day we announced it, we had an offer to do it at the Sydney Opera House for five weeks, sight unseen. How do you say no? Easy!"
Conversation turned to his despair that art nowadays is "bleak." He feels that content is largely created by committee and real individualism -- at least, the norm-challenging kind he staked out -- is increasingly rare.
"I'm not someone who would be anyone's first guess to cross over," Reubens said. "One appeal that I have to people is that I had a very artistic career that got to be very commercial."
Fearing the inevitability that actors will be replaced by computer-generated imagery, Reubens said he has begun exploring the possibility of replacing himself with another actor or in animated form to get his long-gestating movie off the ground. (A substitute he has discussed the matter with: Johnny Depp. He says the actor told him, "Let me think about it.")
"People want to think they're irreplaceable. There is not one person who is irreplaceable, including every icon you can think of. And I don't have to be Pee-wee," Reubens said. "I'm sure it would be difficult to be on a set and watch someone else do it. But I could direct it, which would be exciting to me."
Independent production companies have offered to fund a $5-million movie version of "Pee-wee's Playhouse," but Reubens holds out hope that the stage production will lead to the money he needs for a grander vision for the film, which he imagines taking place amid a "fantasy land" that's "like a 'Wizard of Oz,' H.R. Pufnstuf epic adventure story."
"I'm not going to get a studio all excited about a character that's been out of the public eye for 25 years, even though they've remade everything from my era except me," he said. "And it makes way more sense to remake me than half the other stuff that was remade!"
And in the current cultural climate, the performer said he hopes to inspire young strivers to find their own unique voices.
"This isn't a nurturing time," said Reubens, staring out into the Hollywood night. "But the message of 'The Playhouse' has always been: 'Dare to be different. Here are some options you might not have thought of.'
"I feel like I have a mission," he continued, sounding more like Pee-wee than at any other point in the evening. "I'd love to help!"