In The Mystery of Love & Sex, Howard, the character played by Tony Shalhoub, references a lyric from The King and I. The other afternoon backstage, before a matinee, Shalhoub explained that this isn’t his only connection to the Rodgers & Hammerstein show: he appeared in a staging of it, in his native Green Bay, Wisconsin, when he was six.
“It was a production that my sister, who’s 10 years older than I am, was in. I was not so much asked to do it as recruited to do it. And a few things that happened then are what sunk the acting hook deep into me.”
One of them: “It was a dress rehearsal and we were doing the song at the end of act one. The children end up in a circle around Miss Anna. The curtain comes down to close the act. Somehow, I ended up in the downstage end of the circle. When the curtain closed, I was on the audience side. I couldn’t find the opening in the curtain. It was a dress rehearsal, but there were 30 or 40 people there. I burst into tears, but the audience laughed. Somehow that laugh infected me. It’s been one humiliation after another ever since.”
Shalhoub went on to do a few plays in high school, including two written by Kaufman and Hart, both of whom he played last season in LCT’s production of Hart’s memoir, Act One. But it wasn’t until Shalhoub got to the Yale School of Drama that acting became a serious career possibility.
“When I got to Yale, and saw the level of people I was working with, that’s when I started to realize that acting was the real deal. It was a conservatory situation where we got fed into a professional theater, the Yale Rep. This all ups your game. It was the first time in my life I felt I was in a very competitive situation.”
He didn’t feel himself competitive playing sports as a child in sports-mad Green Bay, where everyone, including Shalhoub, to this day, reveres the Packers? “In sports,” he answered, “I was a legend in my own mind. I was out of my league in every sense.”
As Shalhoub and I were talking about Green Bay, his cell phone rang. It was his wife, the actor and artist Brooke Adams. I took my cue and asked Shalhoub about the production of Beckett’s Happy Days that the couple did six months ago in Pasadena.
“It was very successful,” Shalhoub replied. “Andrei Belgrader directed. He was a teacher of mine at Yale and someone I’ve worked with countless times. We also did Happy Days in November for a short run at a friend’s theater, at Babson College, in Boston. It’s not a play that’s often done in New York. But I’m happy to say that we will be doing it in New York this summer, from June 20th until July 18th.” The theater where this will take place has not yet officially announced the engagement, so I will refrain from stealing its thunder by naming it.
I asked Shalhoub whether detectives hold a particular fascination for him: he played one in TV’s “Monk,” for which he won three Emmys, and his character in The Mystery of Love & Sex writes detective fiction.
“It seems that television is saturated with cops and crime shows and detective shows,” Shalhoub replied. “What’s interesting about my character in this play is that he constructs his life like he constructs his books. He needs clarity. He needs answers. What he discovers in the play is that all the certainty he believes he has so firmly isn’t there. He’s missed the boat on almost everything.”
Shalhoub’s character wants to spare his daughter from making his mistakes; he reminds me of the last line uttered by the parent about his child in Junichiro Tanizaki’s great fiction The Bridge of Dreams: “I want to spare him the loneliness I knew.”
“I imagine that Howard didn’t allow his father to come to his wedding,” Shalhoub said. “I didn’t want something like that to happen to my daughter – not to have her best friend with her at her wedding.” Shalhoub explained that he could relate personally to this situation. “I look back to my own wedding to Brooke. There’s a person that I didn’t invite because the guest list was getting too big. This was someone who should have been there. I regret this. What’s one more person?”
Shalhoub said that his character’s dramatic behavior around the wedding is consistent with his actions in the rest of the play. “My character is very manic and out there. But he’s been imagined lovingly by the playwright” – Bathsheba Doran. “She writes for actors. She understands what actors need and love: someone to make the connections even amidst the disconnections.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.