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Entertainment & Arts

Bobby Cannavale in the height of style with ‘Hat’

When actor Bobby Cannavale texts his friend, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, it’s often just a one-word note. “Slice” means let’s go get pizza. “Bench” means meet me at the bench at 85th and Riverside on the Upper West Side, overlooking Riverside Park.

Last year, Cannavale texted “Bench” when he found out Guirgis’ play, “The Mother… With the Hat” (the expletive is implied) was casting for a Broadway run.

“I don’t think he saw me in the role so much, but I definitely did,” Cannavale said. “And I talked to him about how much I connected with it personally.”

Cut to a recent warm, slow Friday afternoon. Cannavale was back at the bench (Guirgis would show up later, with his voluble dog, Papi, a Chihuahua mix). The two are now both up for Tony Awards on June 12 — Cannavale for best actor and Guirgis for best play.

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“The Mother… With the Hat,” which runs at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre through July 17, is a 90-minute round robin of combustible, often hilarious recrimination and self-rationalizing that at its center is about an addict, Cannavale’s Jackie, clinging desperately to his sobriety. Cannavale’s performance is the rough equivalent of watching a rubber band in human form pulled to its breaking point. Recently paroled from prison, Jackie lives with his still-using girlfriend, Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), in a Times Square residential hotel.

Jackie wants badly both to make Veronica happy and earn the approval of his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, the slippery, “program"-filibustering Ralph D. (Chris Rock). A man’s hat, discovered by Jackie on his kitchen table, is the story’s lit fuse.

Annabella Sciorra plays Ralph’s wife, Victoria, and Yul Vazquez is Jackie’s gay cousin Julio. The play’s pre-opening buzz revolved around comedian Rock’s making his Broadway debut. But the run has resulted in a surge of attention for the 41-year-old Cannavale, who has been on stages here for more than 20 years while acting on screen (he is comic relief opposite Paul Giamatti in Tom McCarthy’s current release “Win Win,” having also co-starred in McCarthy’s 2003 “The Station Agent”).

He has kept an arm’s length from TV, not wanting to leave New York City. Cannavale recurred, for instance, as Will’s cop boyfriend on “Will & Grace,” taking the part on the condition that he fly to L.A. on weeks he didn’t have custody of his son.

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He had become a father at age 24. That child, from his 10-year marriage to actress and screenwriter Jenny Lumet, daughter of the late director Sidney Lumet, challenged him at a young age to balance family and work. Cannavale had to calm down on the fly, something he has no doubt used in playing Jackie.

“This guy has a set of value systems that he’s had since he was 13,” Cannavale said. “That he’s still holding onto [at] 15, and he’s not that age anymore. He’s a grown-up, and there’s some steps that you have to take sometimes, conscious steps.”

“He’s a person who is really authentically in his own life,” Anna D. Shapiro, the play’s director, said of Cannavale. “So that when he’s playing someone like [Jackie], there’s nothing between him and the experience the guy’s having.… I also think he’s a person who’s just genuinely trying to figure out how to be a good guy. And I think Jackie certainly has a lot more obstacles, but I don’t think he’s any less familiar with the search.”

Cannavale is onstage for every scene but one and mostly out of his mind with jealousy, anger and hurt. Already lanky of build, he says he’s lost 15 pounds playing the part, dripping sweat at the end of each performance.

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Then there are the injuries he’s suffered between rehearsals and the run of the show, via some combination of his intensity and klutziness. There was the sprained ankle, the five stitches on his forehead, the torn labrum and rotator cuff.

“I get hurt acting more than anybody you will ever meet, dude,” Cannavale said. The latest: At a performance two nights before his interview with The Times, Cannavale accidentally walked into a metal door frame backstage and fell to the floor. That one was eight stitches. “The whole … set shook,” Cannavale marveled. “And I was down. I wasn’t knocked out, but I didn’t know if I’d broken my nose, it hit that hard.” (Two days later, Cannavale was sporting a ripe, caterpillar-like gash over his left eyebrow. Asked what he would do after the play ended, he mentioned shoulder surgery.)

Father figures

Cannavale does not seem to sweat his career anymore. He’s also aware that he’s been fortunate over the years to have father-figure mentors. Theater giants like director George C. Wolfe when he was the artistic director at the Public Theater and the late playwright Lanford Wilson, a judge when the 21-year-old Cannavale auditioned to become part of Circle Repertory Company.

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Opting out of formal training after high school in Florida, where he moved when he was 13, Cannavale learned by listening and watching. He bartended for money. He was a struggling young actor-father. A key break came in 1998, when he got into an off-Broadway production of the Georges Feydeau farce “A Flea in Her Ear” ("…you know how much I learned from Mark Linn-Baker?” he said. “Watching that guy?”)

And then there was Lumet, his filmmaker father-in-law, who had worked with such legends as Marlon Brando and Al Pacino. Like Cannavale, who was born across the Hudson River in Union City, N.J., the son of an Italian father and a Cuban mother, Lumet had grown up without money on the Lower East Side, the son of an actor in Yiddish theater.

Cannavale laughed as he recalled how Lumet, who died in April, loved to hear the menu that Cannavale’s divorced working mother fed the family, which at that point included his sister, his grandmother and two aunts. On Monday a minute steak, breaded and fried, with rice and beans and plantains. By Thursday the menu was down to rice, eggs and little sausages. His mother paid for the food in cash, out of a white envelope that was meant to last the week.

“Sidney loved that. He would say, ‘Bobby, what would you eat on Thursday?’ I’d say, ‘Eggs, hot dogs and rice.’ … I miss talking to Sidney like that…. I’d watch movies of his that I had never seen. Like out in Easthampton, I’d go, ‘Pop, what’s “The Hill”?’ This movie that he directed. And he’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a good movie, my dear. Sean [Connery] and Ossie Davis.’ And he said, ‘You wanna watch it?’ And we watched it together. And it blew my mind.”

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It was after a season and a half on NBC’s “Third Watch” that Cannavale got to work with his father-in-law in 2001, on Lumet’s cable drama “100 Centre Street.”

As Cannavale was talking, a middle-aged guy with a belly and gray-white hair ambled up, wearing headphones and walking his dog. This was Cannavale’s bench mate, Guirgis. The success of “The Mother… With the Hat” is a huge deal for Guirgis too, his first Broadway play. Five of his previous plays were directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman at the LAByrinth Theater Company, where Guirgis is co-artistic director.

As Guirgis talked and Cannavale hung out on a low wall overlooking the park. Papi barked at motorcycles and knocked over Guirgis’ cup of diet cola. When Cannavale announced he was going to the store, Guirgis asked him to take his dog. A minute later, Cannavale returned.

“This dog, he just won’t go with me,” Cannavale said, handing back the leash and leaving again.

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Acknowledging that he’d stopped by to say nice things about Cannavale, Guirgis said: “Bobby is not excessively fond of dogs.”

calendar@latimes.com


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