Matthew Perry will never forget where he was when war in Iraq broke out. "I was sitting in a replica of the Oval Office," marvels the Friends cut-up, who was taping his two-episode West Wing stint (airing April 23 and 30) at the time. "It was very surreal. Things got very quiet and tense, and it [became] difficult to work."

Just when Perry needed a Friend most, his witty, downwardly-mobile sitcom alter ego, Chandler, was MIA. As the 33-year-old actor points out, his WW character — up-and-coming legal eagle Joe Quincy — shares no traits with Monica's better half "other than that we kind of look alike. [Joe]'s a brilliant lawyer with every option at his feet; he's not Chandler."

And Perry couldn't be any happier about it. With the Friends cast going their separate ways next season — "We're done," he insists — he was eager to show Hollywood his range. After viewing WW tapes earlier this year in his trailer on the set of The Whole 10 Yards, the recently-wrapped sequel to his 2001 hit, he knew he'd found the perfect showcase. "It was the kind of dramatic writing I've been looking for," he says.

Wary of revealing too many plot twists, Perry does admit that Quincy "finds out something pretty huge" while pursuing an associate-council position in the White House. Meanwhile at his other job, something big may also be in the offing. The Bing babymaking effort heats up during May sweeps, a Friends rep reveals. Adds Perry: "I certainly like the [idea] of these two neurotic people wanting to have a child."

After Friends wraps for the season, Perry heads to London to begin rehearsals for his professional stage debut, a revival of David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. The play — which will run for 13 weeks beginning May 12 — co-stars Hank Azaria and Minnie Driver. "It's going to be another new experience for me," he says. "I haven't done theater since high school."