On a recent — and sweltering! — Tuesday, I finally got around to my first park-bench interview, this at the suggestion of the subject, I hasten to add; it'd never have occurred to me, but this odd notion no doubt seemed logical to someone who had made his screen bow in "I'm Not Rappaport," a park-benchmark of a movie (and play) if ever there was one.
"If it was really, really humid, I wouldn't have insisted," swore Bobby Cannavale, offering me one of two cooling quarts of Poland Spring he brought for my game arrival. "I've done a lot of interviews here. You do 'em in restaurants, right?" I nodded, realizing the error of my ways. We entered the park at 85th and moved inland from the CPW traffic, settling on a shady bench just up the path across from a playground full of kids.
Cannavale's current playground is very much a grown-up's sandpile: He will make his Broadway debut Oct. 4 in Mauritius, the new Theresa Rebeck opus that Manhattan Theatre Club and director Doug Hughes have installed at the Biltmore Theatre (previews began Sept. 13). In it, he plays a young buck who arm-wrestles F. Murray Abraham and Dylan Baker over a rare stamp collection inherited by two half-sisters, played by Katie Finneran and Alison Pill.
Like Cannavale, the playwright is Broadway-bowing after much success Off-Broadway. What's even sweeter: She picked him for the assignment. A few years ago, they had worked together on a pilot that didn't fly — "'The Webster Report.' She wrote it for me and Stanley Tucci to play brothers. It was great, but it didn't go, and, ever since, we've been trying to work together again. Once she knew Mauritius was coming to Broadway, she called me and said, 'I got The Part for you. This is The Part.' I read it and agreed. "Just as a piece of writing, I couldn't stop turning the pages. It was a very kinetic experience, reading this play. The characters are three-dimensional, but they're not overly written. You never quite know who these characters are. You don't know what their true intentions are until the end of the play — and then I think it's the kind of play where, a day later, you go, 'Hey, wait a second! Maybe it's not the way I thought it was.' She gives you lots of room to create a wonderful history for yourself that you never tell anybody about."
Mauritius also sets Cannavale up for what he does best, regardless of the medium: team-playing. The quirky comedy that qualifies as his breakthrough film, 2003's "The Station Agent," had him mixing it up with fellow misfits Peter Dinklage and Patricia Clarkson at a forgotten lakefront New Jersey town; that won a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. "Tom McCarthy, who wrote it and directed it, is my best friend, and he wrote all the parts for us. We'd been with it for six years, workshopping it, doing readings, trying to get it made. Tom wanted it to be the exact way he envisioned it, so there were problems getting money."
His biggest prize to date is a 2005 Emmy for Outstanding Guest Star in a Comedy Series, playing Eric McCormack's lover, Vince. "'Will and Grace'' was really fun. It was a great atmosphere because, again, you had an ensemble that all loved working together and a director who directed all of the episodes [James Burrows]."
But his favorite acting experience was doing Scott Elliott's 2005 reprise of David Rabe's Hurlyburly, a Drama Desk nominee for Outstanding Revival of a Play. "It was all about good rapport. The good thing about what we do is that sometimes our lives and our art can crash together in the best possible creative way. That's what happened with this play. You had two guys going through divorces — Ethan [Hawke] and I — and we did that play. It was the most cathartic experience I've ever had. I will feel it forever."
Cannavale intends to continue the media-mixing, but he hopes Mauritius will tip the scales more toward the stage, where he started. "What I always wanted was to have a long, well-respected career in the theatre. In a way, it's so much less subjective than the other mediums, y'know. The audience is smaller, for one thing. There are smaller numbers going to the theatre, but the people who are going are people who actually want to be there. They put great stock in what's up there on the stage. I'm like that. I'm a snob like that. If I'm going to the theatre, it had better be good.
"So it means something to me that the theatre community respects my work. In movies and television, you don't know what the hell they're judging you on. You just don't. They could run a test of the pilot that I did, and they might have had 90 out of 100 people say, 'I can't stand the way his hair looks.' That could have been enough for my show not to go. That's not going to happen in the theatre, I don't think, so it means a lot more to me.
"Broadway's my dream, although to be in an experience like Hurlyburly — whether it was on Broadway or off and never made it to Broadway — truly, there is no difference."