Reed Birney has been singing "An Actor's Life for Me" almost longer than Pinocchio — nearly 40 years and counting — but you'd never know it from tallying only his Broadway credits, of which there are three.
Birney made his Broadway bow in 1977 in Albert Innaurato's Gemini as a slice of white bread the sexually confused hero finds attractive. He then waited 36 years before resurfacing on the Main Stem as a middle-aged Kansas merchant being strong-armed down the aisle by a spinster schoolmarm in William Inge's Picnic. Last year, he finally earned a Tony nomination as arguably the most convincing of the transvestites holed up at Harvey Fierstein's upstate, safe-harbor, weekend hotel called Casa Valentina.
Were that all there was to Birney's career, it alone would speak volumes for his range and versatility. Fortunately for us, Birney has found fertile ground off the Broadway stage. Last spring, he thrilled Off-Broadway as the ultimate in abrasive, abusive bad-dads in Halley Feiffer's I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, and later, he did a huge pendulum swing to the doomed, cancer-ridden dad in Clare Barron's You Got Older, delivering his most aching scene offstage via a phone call.
"I feel like I've spent my whole career being a big secret," Birney admits. "For many years, that was a source of despair, but I have to say right now I'm kind of happy I'm a big secret. I feel like I'm as famous as I need to be. "Anytime I've done a job I thought was a career move, it's always been a disaster, so now I think my mantra really has to be, 'Is it a part I want to play?'”
One of those parts finds him in The Humans, Stephen Karam's first play since the breakout Sons of the Prophet. "It's a gorgeous play," Birney says of the drama playing the Laura Pels Theatre in September in a world premiere directed by Joe Mantello. "[It's] about a family moving their younger daughter into her New York City apartment on the Thanksgiving weekend. We all have Thanksgiving on paper plates, and, as in any good family play, secrets are revealed.”
Cassie Beck, his former Picnic costar, plays his daughter. "She was Christine, the role Elizabeth Wilson did in the original Picnic. Liz was there on our opening night." Four months later, Wilson died at the age of 94. "At her memorial service, the person in charge of her estate gave me a hardbound copy of her Picnic script. In it, Inge had written: 'To Elizabeth, who didn't have to go to Denmark to become Christine.'
"I played Liz's son in The Cocktail Hour in 1990 on a tour with Fritz Weaver. They had been sweethearts at the Barter Theatre when they were young and hadn't worked together ever until [that] production. They were getting to sort of live out a life they hadn't been able to live out. Just to be on stage with them was so joyous for me.
"Any actor who lasts long enough has a wealth of great stories. I have had some really wonderful times. I haven't worked with a lot of stars, but I've worked with a lot of brilliant actors who have had thrilling careers. I did Hay Fever with Joanne Woodward at Kenyon, and to be in the room with this iconic person was great.”
A sense of continuity goes with the profession. Rob McClure of Honeymoon in Vegas and Chaplin was telling Birney about sharing a dressing room at the Paper Mill Playhouse with the late Eddie Bracken, the hapless hero of many a Preston Sturges movie.
"Bracken told him, when he was a young actor just starting out, he shared a dressing room with Harry Hawk, who had been in Our American Cousin the night Lincoln was shot. For Harry Hawk, that was just a theatre story. It was, like, 'Yeah, I was in that show. I was doing it at Ford's Theatre. It was going pretty well that night, too…'"