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Downtown or Uptown, the Role's the Thing for Reed Birney, an Actor's Actor
No matter. Whatever his chronological age, his career shows no signs of descent. For years he single-mindedly clambered up the proverbial peak, stone by stone, "doing one downtown theater piece after another," with an occasional stint on Law and Order. Now, with two recent, significant Broadway roles (generating a Tony nomination and a Drama Desk win) in his pocket, he's still climbing, albeit on a kinder, gentler slope.
So what's he doing downtown again, working in a 95-seat theater?
"I'm playing one of the most challenging roles I've ever done in a profound and powerful play," he responds. He's referring to Halley Feiffer's I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard which will have its official opening on January 22nd at the Atlantic 2 Theater.
Clearly, to Birney, the play's the thing. And, of course, the role.
Halley Feiffer is the daughter of noted playwright and cartoonist Jules Feiffer, and her two-character work is about a young actress named Ella (Betty Gilpin) and her father, David (Birney), awaiting opening night reviews of Ella's performance in The Seagull. Per Birney, it's a version of what the playwright says her life could have been like. He emphasizes that David is not supposed to actually be Jules Feiffer but acknowledges the connection will be made in the play he describes as "intimate, odd, unrelenting, and brutal."
In a variation on his mountain metaphor, Birney sees himself with a limited number of coupons in his book, and when an opportunity comes along, he asks himself whether it merits using one. Location and house size are not factored in. I'm Gonna Pray was a no brainer, definitely coupon –worthy. "I feel very grateful and lucky to have been given a role that's so emotionally complicated and rich."
Birney says he makes little differentiation between off-Broadway and on. Yet clearly he's not blind to the prestige of a Broadway credit. When he was asked to play Howard in a Broadway revival of the William Inge classic, Picnic in 2013, he was gratified to be invited "back to the party" after a thirty-five year absence. (His first — and for a long time only — Broadway foray was in Gemini in 1977: a six-performance workshop ended up on Broadway for four years, with Birney staying in it for a year and a half.) When a Broadway encore, the role of Charlotte in Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina ( Curtainup review) came along just a year after Picnic, Birney jumped at it.
Picnic was pivotal for Birney, one of many milestones in his career. Usually seen, he believes, as "inbred waspy and aristocratic," he relished the opportunity to play a "simple, Midwestern guy." He gave a performance that was elegant in its simplicity, and the critics, as well as the industry, noticed. Curtainup's critic in chief Elyse Sommer, said that Birney and a fellow actor's actor, Elizabeth Marvel, practically stole the show ( Curtainup review)
Of course, Picnic didn't come out of the blue. It was directed by Sam Gold, who four years earlier had directed Birney in Circle Mirror Transformation (Curtainup review ), a "phenomenon" that heightened awareness of Birney, Gold, and playwright Annie Baker.
Contemporaneously with more uptown stage exposure came better TV and movie roles, like appearances on The Good Wife and House of Cards. Birney especially relishes a House of Cards episode in which he and Kevin Spacey, mortal enemies trapped in the same space during an anthrax scare, get drunk together. "It was like a beautiful one-act play," he says.
Birney guesstimates that he works as an actor forty-five weeks a year, an epic number in a tough business, emblematic of his dedication and determination. He's also fearless, as evidenced by his clothes-shedding appearance in Sarah Kane's violent and sexually-charged Blasted at Soho Rep in 2008. ( Curtainup's review ). Times critic Ben Brantley called his commitment to that drama "unflinching." Birney found the role "empowering."
In addition, he teaches acting at the Freeman Studio in Tribeca and will be an adjunct professor at Columbia this spring. He's adamant about instilling in his students the need to commit to their profession and refrain from second guessing whether they're doing the right thing. He hammers home the perseverance aspect of being an actor, telling them "If you're a lifer, you're a lifer."
He, of course, is a lifer. A lifer who can now say, "Having spent most of my career profoundly unhappy with how it was going, I'm thrilled to be in a place where I am as gratified artistically as I can ever imagine being."