Reed Birney gets into makeup before a performance of Casa Valentina at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Reed Birney gets into makeup before a performance of Casa Valentina at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
(© David Gordon)

Reed Birney had never donned drag before he was cast in Harvey Fierstein's Broadway drama Casa Valentina as Charlotte, a performance that has since earned him Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations. "This was my first time," he said before a recent performance. "In college, I did a Greek comedy and I was sort of a drag character, but that was before anyone I know was born."

It was a daunting prospect for the actor, who, in recent years, has come to specialize in playing the put-upon everyman in dramas at some of New York's most respected off-Broadway theaters. In Fierstein's drama, Charlotte is an outsider to the seemingly bucolic Catskills community, a place where men can be free to dress as women. He spends his entire time onstage in a Chanel suit, costumed by fellow 2014 Tony nominee Rita Ryack, and in a wig and makeup designed by Jason P. Hayes.

"Nobody wears makeup anymore doing plays," Birney says. "The theaters I act in are generally so small downtown and the audience is three feet away, so I would look like Kabuki if I had any makeup on. It's actually been a crazy thing to go back wearing makeup for the play. It feels sort of old-timey, but also makes it very special, because I don't have putting makeup on associated with every other play."

He had a pretty big idea of what he expected to look like when he started. "I imagined the dress I was going to wear was going to be Grace Kelly's dress in Rear Window, that big pouffy dress when she makes her entrance. I showed up and Rita Ryack said, 'Our model for you is Tippi Hedren in The Birds.' I said, 'Well, I guess it's still Hitchcock,'" Birney says with a laugh. As for the makeup, it took a few tries to get right. "Jason came up with a plan, and it was almost drag-like. Then, we researched the play and we realized that they were not drag queens. It was much simpler, more naturalistic."

The color, Hayes notes, "is based off an early Nicole Kidman, but the style is all Jane Fonda. She should look like she just stepped away from the bridge table to use the restroom in 1958. Charlotte can't control everything as much as she wants to, so she controls everything that she can, down to the last strand of her hair."

Birney invited TheaterMania to document his transformation. Check out the step-by-step process in the gallery below.