A Couple of Hams

Photo: Peter Hapak; Hair and makeup by Stephen Ramsey/Artists by Timothy Priano

Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub are contemplating a 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle of a rustic village. It’s on the enormous coffee table in the Upper West Side apartment they’re renting through the end of the summer, while they’re in town for the Broadway show Lend Me a Tenor. The puzzle is roughly 80 percent complete. “We got this when we first came here,” says Shalhoub. “It’s been torturing us.”

I ask if they’ve finished the easiest parts or the hardest parts. “Are you kidding? It’s a cakewalk now!” says Adams, who’s in a crisp white shirt and casual pants. Shalhoub, in a sweatshirt, points to an island of unfinished puzzle nearby. “We may have to extract those pieces from the dog’s belly.” It’s Monday afternoon, their day off. And the puzzle, says Shalhoub, has “kind of been therapy for us during downtime from the play. Because the play’s been so consuming.”

The play in question is a revival of a good old-fashioned door-slamming, identity-mistaking, overheard-conversation-misunderstanding slapstick farce that, for the actors, is part high-wire act, part aerobics marathon. “It’s the kind of show that’s really only suitable for the stage because we’re all on that tightrope,” says Shalhoub, who plays the barking manager of a Cleveland opera company that’s dealing with a Pavarotti-esque divo. “And you sense the audience thinking, ‘Holy crap! Anything could and will go wrong here.’ ” And if any audience member thinks he can settle in behind the safety of the fourth wall, that illusion is promptly punctured the first time that Shalhoub spit-takes a fake grape into the crowd, about four rows deep. You notice I say “the first time.”

Adams’s part is somewhat less strenuous, if only because she doesn’t make her entrance until the end of Act One. It is, however, one of the more memorable entrances in recent Broadway, thanks largely to an inspired joke involving a famous landmark and a dress. “When I come on, I feel like the whole contraption is already spinning, and I just have to get ready and then jump in,” she says. “It helps that one of my first lines is ‘I just couldn’t bear waiting backstage anymore!’ Because it’s true. I can’t.” The ringmaster for these shenanigans is director Stanley Tucci, the couple’s longtime friend and occasional collaborator. “Stanley gave me the supreme compliment the other night,” the actress says. “He said, ‘Brooke, I had no idea what a cheap ham you are.’ ”

There are many reasons that stars return to Broadway. Perhaps they’re nursing wounds from an onscreen flop; or they have Shakespeare on their to-do list; or maybe they’d just like to get paid to hang out in New York. Few, though, have as good a reason to come back as Adams and Shalhoub. For them, it’s a second honeymoon.

The couple met on 45th Street in The Heidi Chronicles exactly twenty years ago. “Of course, I was the star when we met, and he was a li’l nothing,” Adams says. She’s joking, but it’s true: In 1990, she was the bobbed beauty from the Upper East Side, well known from movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Dead Zone, while he was a Lebanese-American actor from Green Bay, Wisconsin, and still a year away from his breakthrough role as the cabdriver in the sitcom Wings. Since then, Shalhoub’s become famous as a maestro of scene-stealing character roles: a stoner fake tech officer in Galaxy Quest; a skeevy lawyer in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There; and, of course, Adrian Monk, the title character of USA Network’s long-running sleuth series about a detective with extreme OCD, which wrapped up last year. It was a career-making role. Shalhoub was nominated for an Emmy in seven of Monk’s eight seasons, winning three times.

Monk was also an immersive role, so I wondered who was happier to leave the peculiar sleuth behind: Shalhoub or the woman married to him. “I don’t think anything ever came home from Monk,” says Adams. “But Tony definitely took things there with him. He can get on a loop, let’s put it that way. He’s a perfectionist. If he starts to fix on something, he has to do it until it’s right. He will not give up until it’s done. But that’s what makes him such an amazing artist.”

“It also makes for many sleepless nights,” he says.

“I watch him, and he can just go over and over and over something. With me, if it’s good enough, I leave it. And that’s why I’m not as good as him.”

“Oh, stop it,” he says.

Now Shalhoub, who’s 56 (Adams is 61), finds himself in the post-Monk phase of his career, which is really the first time he’s ever been in the post-anything phase of his career. “As the show was ending, everyone was asking, ‘What do you want to do now?’ ” he says. “I didn’t know. I only knew what I didn’t want to do. Then Stanley threw this script in my lap. I thought, Well, this is a 180—a different medium, a different character. So I thought, I’ll take a chance on this.” Tucci and Shalhoub have worked together before, most memorably in 1996’s Big Night, an elegiac film about two brothers struggling to save a small Italian restaurant. The film was so astutely wrought that some viewers thought Shalhoub and Tucci were actually brothers. “We have a shorthand with each other,” Tucci says. “In the rehearsal room, people thought we were crazy because we’d sit for hours, working on one gag.” Adams adds, “They trust each other. Stanley knows Tony’s a genius, and Tony knows Stanley’s a genius. They would never say that about themselves.”

Thanks to Tucci, Adams and Shalhoub are back on Broadway, working together, literally across the street from the theater where they met. They’re renting an apartment a half-block from Central Park. They can walk to the theater at night. They have two daughters: a 16-year-old, currently in boarding school, and a 21-year-old who’s about to graduate with an acting B.F.A. “Tony and I have never been without children in our relationship,” she says. “We’ve really never spent any time together just us. It’s like we’re reliving the romance days.” (“They’re adorable,” says Tucci. “We catch them kissing backstage.”)

“It’s like no time has passed. Though there were a lot of pieces to make it work,” Shalhoub says. He points at the puzzle. “That’s our lives right there, in a three-foot-square space.” The puzzle isn’t yet completed, but it’s coming together nicely.

Lend Me a Tenor
By Ken Ludwig.
Music Box Theatre.

A Couple of Hams