By Brian Mastroianni, Berkshire Eagle Staff
First published June 7, 2013
GREAT BARRINGTON — It’s a scene that has played out many times on film — two longtime friends take a road trip together, bantering along the way. Actor Tony Shalhoub and screenwriter and playwright Joe Cacaci are driving from New York to Great Barrington to make it to the screening of “Food for Thought” — a short film written and directed by Cacaci that stars Shalhoub and actress Minnie Driver — for the opening night of the 2013 Berkshire International Film Festival.
“I would say he’s fun to work with, but unfortunately, he’s not really a good actor — no depth,” says Cacaci jokingly of Shalhoub, in a phone interview from the road.
Sitting in the passenger’s seat, Shalhoub quips back. “I’d work better with good material.”
The two have known each other for most of their careers. The Emmy-winning “Monk” star and the writer whose work has appeared coast-to-coast at venues like The Public Theater in New York and the Coconut Grove Theater in Los Angeles will both be back in the Berkshires for tonight’s Berkshire Playwrights Lab’s sixth season gala celebration at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington. Shalhoub will be starring in a staged reading of a short play by Cacaci, one of five original works written exclusively for the gala.
The play offers a snapshot in time of a businessman-turned politician running for office and his young campaign manager while both are in a Midwestern hotel room on the campaign trail.
“(The politician is) more of an independent, but this isn’t something that delves into one political side or the other, it’s focused on the characters and who they are,” Shalhoub added.
Tonight will mark the first time the play will be read for an audience. Given the two men’s long history together — Shalhoub was featured in a TV pilot that Cacaci wrote several years ago that the two said they hope to revisit in the future — working on this short play made for an easy collaboration.
“You see this short film we did and then look at the character he is playing here for the gala, and you cannot imagine these two characters being connected in any way,” Cacaci said. “Tony can play these characters who are wildly opposite and I haven’t seen anyone who can quite do it like him. That’s the truth.”
Cacaci said Shalhoub is very good at analyzing scripts, providing insights during the rehearsal process that has helped Cacaci see the play or screenplay in a different light.
This ability to bring to life vastly different characters and worlds is something the two men share. Shalhoub said that he has loved having the opportunity to interpret Cacaci’s “intelligent, sophisticated, humor-filled writing.”
“His work has an enormous sense of heart. OK, I take that back — he’s a bitter, bitter man,” Shalhoub joked. “As an actor it is always fun to work on writing that comes from such a vile, steaming bubbling bile.”
Beyond their artistic shorthand and good-natured ribbing, connecting the two men is a passion for working across mediums.
Recognizable to mainstream audiences as the brilliant, phobia-plagued detective Adrian Monk for eight seasons on the USA Network’s “Monk,” Shalhoub got his start in theater. He earned a Master’s in Fine Arts from the Yale School of Drama. From Yale, he lived a life treading the boards, performing first with the American Repertory Theater, and then pursued a stage career in New York. Film and television quickly followed, and Shalhoub became one of those recognizable, but not-yet-a household name kind of faces until “Monk.”
This past year, Shalhoub revisited his love of theater on Broadway in the critically acclaimed revival of Clifford Odets’ 1937 drama “Golden Boy.” Following tonight’s gala performance, Shalhoub will be heading back to New York for Sunday’s Tony Awards, for which he is nominated for Best Featured Actor in Play.
“Working on ‘Golden Boy’ was one of the best experiences I had in a long time,” Shalhoub said. “It was a terrific piece of material with a fantastic director. It was a true joy to be part of that whole world.”
This ability to shift from theater to film to television and back again is something Cacaci understands very well. One of the four artistic directors of the Lab, which is the only company in the area dedicated solely to nurturing new plays, Cacaci co-created the CBS series, “The Trials of Rosie O’Neill,” written television films, and has served as co-executive producer of two primetime series — “The Hoop Life” on Showtime and, on CBS, “The Education of Max Bickford.”
Teaching television writing at the graduate film program at Columbia University, Cacaci said the mission of helping young writers is what makes the Lab’s work so crucial.
“It’s hard for new playwrights to find a place for their work,” said Jim Frangione, another one of the Lab’s artistic directors. “That is why having the gala, and featuring people like Tony is so important — it raises awareness and interest in new works.”
For Shalhoub, there is nothing quite like working on a new play.
“Working with a playwright on a new piece is incredible,” Shalhoub said. “Some playwrights are territorial and don’t want to change a syllable, but most are really open to what the actor and the director brings to it. Joe does that.”
Thist will be Shalhoub’s first time at the lab’s annual gala.
“Joe asked me to stay away until this year. He finally allowed me to come,” Shalhoub said as the two men laughed.
“I told him to stay away for the first five years,” Cacaci said. “I figured we could haul him out this time.”