Perhaps best known for his television roles, Tony Shalhoub has a long history in the theater, as does his wife, Brooke Adams. In 2010, Shalhoub and Adams both starred in the Broadway revival of the comedy “Lend Me a Tenor.” And Shalhoub has been nominated for two Tony Awards, one last year for his work in “Golden Boy” and again this year for his leading role in “Act One.” The pair met in 1988 while both were performing on Broadway as replacement actors in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Heidi Chronicles."
Today, the couple is starring at the Theater @ Boston Court as Winnie and Willie in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist two-act two-person play “Happy Days.” Throughout the production, Winnie, who has the most lines, is buried in dirt at first up to her waist and in the second act up to her neck.
“It was an amazing challenge and I thought, ‘I just should say yes,’” Adams said recently in a three-way phone conversation with her husband and the Pasadena Weekly.
But she wondered: Who would play Willie?
“Tony was dangling the idea that he might do it,” she said.
“I had been thinking about it a lot,” Shalhoub admitted. “She wasn’t badgering me.”
“I didn’t want to push him,” Adams cheerily chimed in.
By the time they married in 1992, Shalhoub had joined the cast of the TV series “Wings” for its third season as cabdriver Antonio Scarpacci and remained with the series until it ended in 1997. In 2002, he starred in “Monk,” a role for which he won three Emmys and a Golden Globe. Adams appeared on the show four times. Shalhoub, Variety reports, will soon return to television, joining the cast of “Nurse Jackie” in a recurring role as an emergency room doctor.
After their two daughters were grown, Adams returned to acting and was cast as Winnie by director Andrei Belgrader.
Adams recalled thinking, “Why me?” But more to the point, why Beckett?
The Irish playwright is most famous for his 1949 two-act play, “Waiting for Godot.” First performed in 1961, “Happy Days” is also an absurdist play, one with only two characters, the long-married couple Willie and Winnie.
“Brooke started working on it back in March. I was running lines with her,” Shalhoub continued. “Then it became a no-brainer.”
No doubt it helped that Belgrader, Shalhoub’s former teacher who had also directed several episodes of “Monk,” was directing the Boston Court production.
How did Adams learn about Shalhoub’s decision to play Willie?
“I read it in The New York Times," Adams recalled. “My reaction was now he’s stuck and he has to do it.”
“Happy Days” is a comedy, but, as Adams said, “Beckett isn’t for everyone.” She worries that despite only having about four lines, Shalhoub will steal the show.
“I never steal. I borrow,” Shalhoub quipped. “I’m not going to steal the show from Brooke. It’s a riveting performance. I just intermittently add the accent pieces. I’m invisible most of the time.”
“Just him agreeing to be in this is pushing me to be better,” Adams said, “and more people will come to see it.”
Being in a play together is “just great on a practical level,” Shalhoub explained. “To be on the same schedule is nice. Usually one of us is out of town. But now, driving to work every day and driving home together is a real luxury.”
Onstage, the set is sculpted into a dry mound of earth. What little vegetation we see has long since withered. Adams appears in an ivory colored sleeveless lace dress with a single strand of gray pearls around her neck. One easily sees why director Belgrader wanted Adams. Few actors can beam with enough optimism to fill a room with so little movement — even with just her head exposed during the second act.
While Winnie is spotlessly groomed above the ground, her husband Willie wallows in dirt like an adult version of the Peanuts character Pigpen. They are not alike, but you sense a fondness that has deepened over time.
“Hopefully,” Adams said, “we’ll make it very accessible and funny. With most plays, you get them right off the bat. They all kind of make sense.” However, with Beckett, “the mysteriousness of it all goes beyond trying to say what it’s about.”
“As we are working on it,” Shalhoub explained, “it’s revealing itself to be current, relevant, full of humor, poignancy, emotion and truisms, almost painfully truthful. It’s like Brooke said, it’s a rare gem.”
“Happy Days” continues until Oct. 12 at the Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. For more information, call (626) 683-6883 or visit bostoncourt.com.