STAGE TO SCREENS: Kate Mulgrew and Bobby Cannavale Chat About Stage and TV

By Michael Buckley
16 Mar 2003

The new play by Suzan-Lori Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Topdog/Underdog, is entitled Fucking A and set, as stated in the Playbill, "in the middle of nowhere." The action involves an abortionist (S. Epatha Merkerson), a whore (Daphne Rubin-Vega), the island's mayor (Bobby Cannavale), his wife (Michole Briana White), a convict (Mos Def), and a butcher (Peter Gerety). There are 10 songs, some very brief, which add a Brechtian tone to the piece.

Bobby Cannavale (Cah-nah-VAHL-ay) says that he's "a huge fan" of the playwright. "Her work makes me think so deeply. There's very little art that can make me do that. I certainly don't get it from television. I get it from very few films, sometimes from music. But as far as theatre goes, she does it better than anybody, for me.

"It's so hard to talk about her work, or to describe what the play is about. It's unlike anything I've ever worked on. I get something different from it every night. I have a definite connection with her work; I love what it inspires inside of me, and I don't need [the play] explained to me." Cannavale plays The Mayor and also appears as a prison guard. "The Mayor represents power, the government. [The character] started out as sort of buffoonish. I always knew he was going to be larger than life. I think it's very interesting that the dumbest person in the play [the Mayor] is running things. In the end, he's a very dangerous person. He believes in everything he says—very much like what we're living in right now."

The previous night, Cannavale sat in on a "talk back" between the playwright and the audience. "It's the most I've ever heard Suzan-Lori speak. I do most of my work with Michael [Greif, the director]. If you have any questions, you can ask her, but Suzan-Lori never sat down and said, 'This is what this play is about. This is what I was thinking about here.' Last night, people wanted answers. Somebody asked, 'What is your statement? What are you trying to say about abortion?' She said, 'I'm just showing you this character and what she does. I don't write to preach to anybody. I just write to show.' Four hundred people in the audience are going to see different things—and that's the beauty of theatre."

In the play, Cannavale sings "My Little Army," a song directed to his sperm. ("I salute the men of my little army...") I inquire if he intends to record the number. "People say, 'I didn't know you sang.' I say, 'Neither did I.' I would love to record it. [Laughs]" While he likes "to do everything," Cannavale prefers the stage. "TV and film are over so quickly. Particularly on TV, you don't tend to get very good direction. There's not the ensemble feeling [with actors] like there is in a play. During three weeks of rehearsal, you build a trust. In this play, I'm learning from Michael, Epatha, Mos. Theatre is best for that. Without it, I'd have no education."

Theatre figured into Cannavale's life at an early age. The oldest of three, he was born in Union City, New Jersey. "I went to Catholic school. I was an altar boy; I joined the choir and a theatre group. I did my first show at eight. I played Winthrop in The Music Man. When I was ten, I was in Flowers for Algernon. Doing plays was the only thing I wanted to do. I was in a lot of trouble when I was a kid. I was expelled from school. We moved to Florida; that's where I graduated from high school. I didn't go to college. I came to New York and got involved with the Circle Rep. Lanford Wilson saw me in a play, and that's when our friendship started.

"Before it folded, Circle Rep was my education—watching Lanford and Craig Lucas and Tim Mason and Paula Vogel. I learned from them." Another learning experience was Noel Coward in Two Keys, which Cannavale did at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor (N.Y.) in 1996. "I learned so much from Tony Walton, who directed it, and from Bebe Neuwirth, Leigh Lawson and Dee Hoty, who were in the cast. For years, I did theatre and worked in bars. I thought I wasn't the right type for television. When I was doing The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told in Williamstown, [writer producer] John Wells saw it. He put me in 'Trinity' [a 1998-99 NBC series]. For eight episodes, I played a tugboat operator who was having an affair with Charlotte Ross. When that was cancelled, [Wells] wrote a part for me in 'Third Watch.'

For the series' first two seasons, Cannavale played police officer Bobby Caffey. He left (after a junkie friend fatally shot his character) "because I wanted to do something different. I didn't want to play one role [for an extended time]. I felt it was time to go." Prior to his current assignment, Cannavale's most recent stage work was Two Sisters and a Piano "at the McCarter [in Princeton, N.J., in 1999]. They brought it to the Public. I was dying to do it [there], but I had to do 'Third Watch.' Paul Calderon played the part."

In 2001, Cannavale returned to series TV to play ADA Jeremiah Jellinek in the A&E cable series, "100 Centre Street," working for a year with his father-in-law, Sidney Lumet. "He's so good—a really, really, really great director. He knows exactly what to say, doesn't get in your way, and believes in rehearsing."

While appearing Off-Broadway in The Normal Heart, Cannavale noticed his future wife in the audience. "I saw her during the curtain call, rushed outside to meet her and ask her out. We got married five months later." His wife, Jenny, is the daughter of Lumet and the director's third wife, Gail (Lena Horne's daughter, now writer Gail Buckley). The Cannavales have a son, Jacob, "soon to be eight," who has often accompanied his father to work. "He knows it's about make believe, and that appeals to his imagination. He just loves that that's what Daddy gets to do. He wants to do it, too. He says, 'I want to be a director and a poet.'"

In February, Cannavale played Chato Cadena in "Kingpin," the six-part NBC series about a Mexican drug cartel. He brought his son to a looping session. "Turns out the scene I'm looping was one in which I get my ass kicked, then I get raped, and then I stab these guys. There was nowhere to put Jakey, so I told him, 'These guys beat Daddy up, and then I get them back.' He said, 'Cool!' One of Jakey's favorite movies is 'Hedwig [and the Angry Inch],' and he loved 'Moulin Rouge.' I'm very broad in what I let him watch, as long as I'm watching it with him."

When his son asked the name of Daddy's new play, Cannavale told him that it was Fucking A. "He said, 'That's a bad word.' I said, 'You shouldn't say it.' He said, 'Okay. What's it about?' I said, 'It's hard to explain, Jakey. Even if you were big, it would be hard to explain. It's about power, and mothers and sons, and about love, and how strong love can be.' By then, he was bored. [Laughs]"

Aside from playing the Mayor, Cannavale is focusing "on the Tennessee Williams [Festival] that they're doing [summer 2004] at Kennedy Center." I ask if he's interested in a particular play. "I want to do Streetcar; I've wanted to do it for the last four years." As Stanley? "Or Blanche—what do you think?" We agree that he's better suited for Stanley, and he wouldn't have to dye his hair.

"I'm always much prouder of things I do in the theatre," concludes Bobby Cannavale. "There's a lot of luck involved in television. A lot of times people want a look, or somebody with a name, or somebody who'll appeal to a certain audience. It's out of your control. But with theatre, you come in and audition—as I did for Michael [Greif] and Suzan-Lori Parks. I feel really proud that they wanted me. It's just the top of the world to be in this play!"


END QUIZ: Katharine Hepburn starred in a 1979 TV version of "The Corn Is Green." Who played Miss Moffat in an earlier presentation (1/8/56) on "The Hallmark Hall of Fame": a) Lynn Fontanne; b) Eva LaGallienne; c) Bette Davis? (Answer: Next column, April 13)

The Feb. 16 question was: Who played El Gallo in the TV version of "The Fantasticks" (NBC, 10/18/64): a) Robert Goulet; b) Elliott Gould; c) Ricardo Montalban? The answer is c.

—Michael Buckley also writes for and The Sondheim Review.