It's always a "happy day" when husband-and-wife actors Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub get to share the stage, whether they're working a play written by Ken Ludwig, Wendy Wasserstein, A.R. Gurney or David Mamet.
Or Samuel Beckett, whose existential two-hander Happy Days is playing at the Theater @ Boston Court in Pasadena, CA, through Oct. 12. The play is largely a showpiece for the performer playing Winnie (in this case, Adams) who is buried up to her chest in a mound of dirt for the first act and then up to her neck in the second. Winnie passes the day by chattering idly away and occasionally striking up a conversation with her husband Willie (Shalhoub) who is lurking somewhere out of view behind her. The director is Andrei Belgrader, a longtime friend of the couple who has directed Shalhoub in several productions. The production will be remounted Nov. 18-23 at Carling-Sorenson Theater at Babson College in Boston, MA.
Playbill.com recently spoke with the L.A.-based Adams and Shalhoub about their long journey to staring in the play, which, Adams admits, used to make her fall asleep.
The production recently opened. How are the two of you feeling about things? Brooke Adams: Great!
Tony Shalhoub: It's a lovely theatre, a very intimate 99-seat house which is perfect for this piece. You certainly wouldn't want to do this in a bigger theater too much.
BA: Which we're going to do in Boston. In November, it's going to Babson College in Boston where our friend Steve Maler, who runs the Boston Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, works. They are housed in this gorgeous theatre, and Steve wants to put something in to make people know that this place is really doing theatre. That's where we come in. They've asked us to do Happy Days. Andrei Belgrader is a friend of ours and Tony has done a lot of work with Andrei before — at Yale and at ART — and [they have worked together on] some Beckett in the past. Andrei has been asking me for four years if I want to do this play with him, and I frankly don't know Beckett from Adam. Every time I would try to read it, I would fall asleep. But then in fact I was doing a play with Steve Maler, who runs the theatre in Boston and he said, "We have to think of a play for you, Brooke," and one day he came up to me and said, "I've found the perfect play for you: Happy Days by Beckett." I thought, "Oh, my God, what is it about me and that play?" So I told him I already had been asked by Andrei, and I wouldn't feel right about doing it with anybody else. That's what made me decide to do it. Still, I didn't really get it. I would kind of fall asleep every time I would try to read it.
TS: Sounds like a ringing endorsement for the play, doesn't it?
How did it happen that the production would originate in Pasadena?
BA: [Boston Court's co-artistic director] Jessica Kubzansky had studied with Andrei and had seen a production that he did of a Beckett play, and she was just blown away. Several years ago, she said, "Anything you ever want to do at this theatre, you can do." So he said, "I want to do Happy Days with Brooke Adams," which does not happen to me very often. I'm so grateful to him for wanting me to do it and for giving me this unbelievable opportunity to do this great play and this great part.
Hang on a minute. You said Happy Days used to put you to sleep. How did you go from falling asleep to falling in love with the play?
BA: I think it was just in the memorizing of it. It's like memorizing a long-form poem. In the memorizing of it, I just started becoming haunted by this thing. I don't think it's appropriate to read this play. I think you have to see it or do it.
TS: It's a very different experience aloud. In a way, like Shakespeare, it's one thing on the page and a whole other thing when the language starts to blossom. You become connected to the performer.
BA: And it was painful to learn this thing. It really hurt my head. I have a terrible memory. I'm not used to learning 57 pages of poetry.
TS: Fortunately the play is about memory and the difficulty of it. So it all folds together.
BA: It's also really about a marriage. Tony said he would do this without prompting or anything which was really an act of love on his part for me. That's made it even more incredible. He only has five lines or something.
TS: But I do them very well.
BA: He steals the show.
Tony, given your love of Beckett and your previous work with Andrei, when he was asking Brooke to do Happy Days and she was resisting, did you step in and lobby her?
TS: I really thought it would be a good fit for Andre and Brooke to do this together. I was thrilled. But I think this is something you really have to come to on your own. I encouraged it, but I certainly didn't want to push it.
What is it about Andrei that makes his work on Beckett so exemplary?
TS: I've done Godot twice with Andrei, and I know he also did a really very highly acclaimed production of Endgame in New York with John Turturro and Elaine Stritch. Andrei really tries to mine the comedy, but not in a shticky way, in very honest truthful way. With Beckett, the problem often happens with where people approach it as sort of this sacred, somber, very bleak and depressing kind of material. Or, if they decide to tap into the comedy, it becomes just silliness. Andrei just seems to have a really good balance and he just is devoted to the writer.
BA: Tony says he's not shticky, and that's kind of a lie. Andrei's always saying, "Oh would this be too cheap?" and suggest some really cheap idea, and we jump on it and use it.
Can you discuss some of the physical challenges of being forced to act just with your face?
BA: It's a freeing experience to lose all of that other stuff. In a way it's funny. It just gives you permission to... I don't know... to just be there and let it be, which is a really good lesson for any actor, I think. It is very uncomfortable, actually, sitting in that thing and getting into it and getting out of it. Actually, the second act is more comfortable, because I've done a lot of the play already and now I'm used to it. It's a situation that most people haven't been in, so you can't be getting a lot of criticism like, "Oh I wouldn't act like that if I were in that hole." But also, it's a condition that allows you to sort of let the terror be there and to have to keep rising above it. If Winnie gets quiet and thinks about where she really is, it's just a horror. So it's sort of the constant propeller. Generally you don't have something that's so constant to keep you going as this, and it's a great tool. We did wrap me up so I could really get that feeling in rehearsal, and it has an effect.
How about a line interpretation from Happy Days? "What a curse, mobility."
BA: Well, Andrei says, "You mean it." When you see Willie crawling around, you mean it. It's not something you're saying to be ironic or to wink to the audience. It's really what she means.
TS: The only thing worse than being stuck in a hole is being able to move.
With 57 pages of text to learn, much of it in monologue form, do you ever get lost in the text?
BA: Oh, God, yes, and that can happen to you in this play because so many things are repeated and come back. You can go from the first act to the second act without even knowing it. That's terrifying. It's taken me since March to learn these lines, but I kind of know them now. But some moments are pretty scary, and Andrei loves that. He loves it if I forget my lines.
TS: He likes to see that moment of loss and terror. That's kind of what the character is all about.
When the two of you work together in the same play, do you invariably take the work home?
BA: Of course. We love working together. That's how we met, doing The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway, so it's very familiar to us. We did Lend Me a Tenor on Broadway. For a while there we were doing readings of Love Letters for every school that either of our kids went to…
TS: Mamet at ART...
BA: Mamet at ART. It's just really fun. We love it.