After a seven-year absence from the theater, Tony Shalhoub found the right reason to return to the New York stage. In Theresa Rebeck's biting and timely play The Scene, Shalhoub does a 180-degree turn from his most famous role, compulsively neurotic detective Adrian Monk on the long-running USA network series Monk. He plays Charlie, a chronically unemployed actor whose high-minded glory days have receded far into the past. Charlie's on the edge but doesn't seem to realize just how fragile he is. And then he meets a stylishly vacuous young woman named Clea. With a voice steeped in the inane cadences of a latter-day Carrie Bradshaw, Clea is someone Charlie should despise—indeed, intellectually, he scorns her, as he does the celebrity culture that produced her—but something about Clea's long legs in a short black dress sends him hurtling, like a "meteor," as Shalhoub puts it, toward his doom. Roles like this for an actor Shalhoub's age, 53, come along so rarely that it was worth upending his comfortable life in Los Angeles with his wife, actress Brooke Adams, and their daughters, Josie and Sophie, to co-star with his old friend Patricia Heaton Everybody Loves Raymond in The Scene. In conversation, Shalhoub is insightful and extremely mellow. Out in L.A., his peers shower him with Emmy Awards—three, so far—and in New York, critics are praising his magnetic return to the stage. No matter which coast you prefer, Tony Shalhoub is a good guy who made good.
Let's talk about the character you are playing in The Scene. Charlie says, "Stupid people are destroying this planet." And yet he hooks up with Clea, the stupidest person in the play. He stumbles down a very deep hole. What happens to Charlie?
A lot of things. When the play starts, it's all coming to a head. He's an actor who was really hot for a while and then everything started to decline. I feel like he was the kind of guy who had some opportunities to go a more commercial route, sell out a little, but he just couldn't make himself do it. Even though this isn't in the play directly, I think his perception of Stella, his wife [played by Heaton], is that she has somehow latched on to a job [as a talent booker for a TV talk show] that is beneath her and got entrenched in it. Obviously, she is keeping them both afloat, but she comes home and talks about the most trivial stuff and gets all worked up about it. Another factor that's working on him is that there's this [adopted] baby coming. In an unspoken way, he's anxious about that. He feels he's a failure as an actor, a failure as a husband and now he's worried that he'll be a failure as a father.
Stella pushes him to talk to this guy about a job, which he doesn't want to do, and he goes through this other humiliation. After their horrible lunch, Charlie's at a particular low point and he goes into this rant. Clea is in the room, and she plays on his vulnerability. And he goes through a descent like no one I've ever seen. He's like a meteor falling.
So, what is it about modern life that Charlie doesn't get? The wife's doing what she can to keep them going, even though she doesn't like her job.
Early on, Stella and Charlie and their coterie of friends fancied themselves as somewhat sophisticated and cultured. They had an appreciation for art, literature and music. They weren't snobs by any means, but they considered themselves people who could appreciate high culture. And everything in present-day New York life is working against them.
Because New York has changed.
It's all changed, so much. At the party where Charlie first meets Clea, there's no one to talk to. Everyone's younger than he is. He feels out of it. But he's so turned on by this rich man's apartment, being out on the terrace. It sparks this old fire in him. In the next scene [in his apartment], he's begging Stella to go to Italy. He says, "Let's blow out the bank account." He wants to feel like a rich person, like a winner. And she, of course, isn't having any of that; she's concerned about money because the baby's coming. He doesn't even want to discuss that. He wants to get back to what he believes they had when they were younger. Charlie lives in the past.
Have you ever played a part like this?
I did a two-character play off-Broadway in 1988 down at Classic Stage Company called Rameau's Nephew. I was much younger and had a lot more energy then, and a better memory, frankly. It was the kind of part where I got to go over the edge and the character was really unleashed, as is Charlie. But it's been a long time since I've had to put out this amount of wattage.
You got the script from your old friend Patricia Heaton, right?
Yes. I've known Patty for a long time. I knew her husband, David Hunt, first, before they even knew each other. He and I did a play together at Long Wharf 20 years ago. I was best man at their wedding, and we don't live far from each other in Los Angeles. She signed on to do the play first, gave it to me and said, "This happens to fall on your hiatus period from Monk." I said, "I can't do a play, I can't go to New York for this amount of time." She said, "You don't have to do it. Just read the play." Of course, I got halfway through it and thought, "I can't resist this part." A new play, breaking new ground, and a part like this? These parts just do not come along.
Was it OK with everyone at home for you to come to New York for an extended period?
Originally, it was going to be three months. A month of rehearsals, a month of previews and a month of the regular run. That really was going to be too long. So we worked it out with Second Stage to rehearse the play in Los Angeles. They brought Chris [Evan Welch, who plays Charlie's best friend] and Anna [Camp, who plays Clea] and put them up out there, instead of bringing Patty and me here. It worked out really well. I'm grateful to the theater and the director [Rebecca Taichman] and the playwright [Theresa Rebeck] because they live in New York. Everybody had to make a little sacrifice.
What do you find satisfying about doing plays?
I went to Yale Drama School and worked in the theater for years before I did any television or film. It wasn't until the last few years of living in New York that I started to venture into TV. I always assumed that I would have a life in the theater, and that's what I set out to do. Somehow I got on to this other track and went out to L.A. and got a series [Wings], then I got married and had kids, and 16 years kind of flew by.
You received a Tony nomination for Conversations With My Father in 1992. What are your memories of that play?
Very, very fond memories. The loss of Herb Gardner three years ago was just horrible. He was one of the reasons I originally pursued this kind of work. I grew up in Green Bay, and it wasn't like there were a lot of options to pursue regional theater there unless you wanted to be a Green Bay Packers cheerleader [laughs]. I remember watching A Thousand Clowns on television when I was a teenager, the movie based on Herb's great play. I was so affected by this movie, knowing that it was a play. Those were the days when you had to wait a year or two for a movie to come around [on TV] again. I would hunt for it, and became kind of obsessive. Years later, when Herb asked me to do Conversations With My Father, it was like a dream come true—meeting him, kind of playing him, because the play was based on his relationship with his father. That was a terrific time for me. That was also the year I married Brooke [Adams].
Yes. I was doing The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway with Christine Lahti and David Hyde Pierce; we were the replacements for the original cast. After four months, Christine left to do a movie, and Brooke came in to replace Christine. So we played opposite each other. It was wonderful and torturous [laughs].
Brooke already had a very successful film career at that point. One of my favorite movies she starred in was Gas Food Lodging.
It's funny that you bring that up: That was the night I proposed to her, at the screening in L.A. Her performance so affected me, I turned to her in the dark while the end credits were rolling and proposed right there. I said, "I'm doing this without a ring." She didn't say yes right away. I had to wait three or four days. I was hoping for a done deal, right then and there.
She wanted to see the ring.
I think so. She wanted to see something.
You became an instant dad, too.
Yes. Brooke had already adopted Josie, our older daughter, as a single woman. When I met them, Josie was 13 months old. When we got married, she was three. I got a ready-made family.
Now that you are a well-known TV star, is there any competition between you and Brooke?
Oh, no, no, no. Brooke still acts. She's done three episodes of Monk, and we did a movie together a few years ago that's now out on DVD, called Made Up, which she and her sister wrote and produced and I directed. We all acted in it. She did The Cherry Orchard last year in New York with the Atlantic Theater Company. Because she's at home a lot raising the girls, she's started painting. She's become an unbelievable painter, selling her work. And she's writing a screenplay. She keeps her creative juices going that way.
Do your daughters have ambitions to work in the theater?
Our older daughter is a freshman at CalArts in a BFA acting program. She didn't show a lot of interest early on, but within the last year and a half, she started to think seriously about it. Then she applied and auditioned and did really, really well. I don't know about the younger one; she's much more of a nature person.
What's it been like for you to achieve this level of mainstream success, including three Emmys, with Monk?
To be really honest, I felt successful when I was just working in the theater, because that's what my goal was—to have steady work with people you like and make a fair living. It didn't take celebrity or money or any of that stuff to make me feel successful. When all this other stuff comes, it's kind of gravy actually. My career has had a nice, gradual build. I think it's harder for people who have success at an early age. This business makes it hard to keep your priorities straight. I've been building at the right pace.
What's the secret of Adrian Monk's popularity?
That's the biggest mystery of all the mysteries on the show.
In the sixth season? Come on…
I think it's a tribute to our writers and how they keep finding these bizarre situations to put the characters in. They're kind of revealing more and more, even to me, about them. People relate to this guy because he struggles so hard and manages to get through the day in spite of all of his neuroses. There's something sort of hopeful about that.
Sure. And I get a lot of mail from people who either suffer from it or have family members who suffer from it. They really embrace the character. That's very gratifying. In the beginning, we worried that we might be exploiting the disorder. We've done it in such a way that allows people who have it to laugh at themselves. It also takes a bit of the stigma off of the disorder.
Have you been watching your own compulsive tendencies?
Yes. The other day I was eating out and I thought, "How many freaking people touch these menus? I highly doubt that they're washing these things every day." Then I thought, "That's another thing I have to worry about."
Tell me about your next project, a film about Arab-Muslim relations called AmericanEast.
We're in post-production. I play a Jewish businessman who's trying to partner up with this Egyptian Muslim-American guy. It's going to be incredibly controversial.
Because there's no way to raise these issues without somebody, somewhere, getting offended. I think it's very fair and balanced. It's kind of along the lines of Do the Right Thing in that it's about racial tensions in a city, in this case, Los Angeles. It has a lot of funny stuff in it, and disturbing things. And it has a gorgeous look. The director wanted the film to have that white-hot look of the Middle East. The central setting is this guy's coffee shop/falafel store, and they wanted it to feel like one of these places you might walk into in Cairo. And it was brutally hot this summer, so we didn't have to pretend the heat; we were baking. It gives an interesting quality to the piece, and it has some interesting things to say.
Now that you're back in New York, what are you doing to amuse yourself?
I went to the Guggenheim the other day with some friends, but this part is such a steeplechase, the whole day is geared around the show. I have to eat at the right time and try to work out or get some kind of exercise. I just can't roll out of bed and do this. It's too gigantic a part for me at my age!
See Tony Shalhoub in The Scene at Second Stage Theatre.