Reed Birney and Jayne Houdyshell "Feel the Birn" as The Humans Continues Its Success
Stephen Karam's play is nominated for six Tony Awards, including two for its theater-vet stars.
"Everything about this play," Reed Birney says, "from how it's produced to the cast, has spoiled me for every job from here on in."
It's easy to see why with an unlikely hit such as Stephen Karam's The Humans. After making the leap, practically overnight, from an off-Broadway run at Roundabout Theatre Company to Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre, Birney and his stage wife, Jayne Houdyshell, are reaping the benefits. They're 2016 Tony Award nominees and, along with their costars, recipients of a special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble.
Both Houdyshell and Birney have been involved with various iterations of The Humans over the last few years, and both shared the same reaction. "My response was, 'This is really, really good,'" says Houdyshell, who participated in a 2014 workshop at New York Stage and Film. "I thought, 'Oh, I want to do this play so badly. I don't think I'll ever get cast," adds Birney, who did a one-day reading of the material even before Houdyshell got involved. "Two and a half years later—"
"Dream come true," Houdyshell jumps in.
A powerful 90-minute drama, The Humans is set on a portentous Thanksgiving when the Pennsylvania-based Blake family visits their daughter's new Chinatown basement duplex for the first time. Birney is Erik, the patriarch with an aching back and an even more painful secret. Houdyshell plays his wry wife, Deirdre. They, along with their onstage family, bonded immediately over the short rehearsal process.
"We had two weeks [of rehearsal for the off-Broadway run] and a week of tech, and then we were in previews," Houdyshell says. As for the familial connection, "I believe that happened very quickly." Birney agrees. "What was great about it was that most of us knew each other. There was an enormous fondness walking off the elevator [the first day], and that made a big difference. And then we sat down with the play and everybody was so good. It was thrilling."
A lot of that success, Houdyshell believes, is credited to Karam's writing: "The play is so keenly and exquisitely and specifically written. If you have it in the hands of people who have experience and skills, it's hard not to drop right into that family." As Birney notes, "One of the most remarkable aspects is that everybody has their own voice, which doesn't always happen with young playwrights, and he has no judgment of the characters. You can be watching it and you'll side with Jayne's character, and then two minutes later, you'll side with the daughter."
The narrative of the Broadway transfer is something out of the movies, with the cast learning the news on opening night of their off-Broadway run. Theater and film producer Scott Rudin saw their first matinee at the Laura Pels Theatre. "I didn't know what I was doing," Birney says of that day's performance. "I barely knew my lines. We had only been in rehearsal for two weeks." "We were all white-knuckling it," Houdyshell remembers.
"He loved it so much," Birney continues, "and called Todd Haimes and said, 'I want to move it to Broadway.' They didn't tell any of us that that was happening until after the opening-night performance off-Broadway. They called us into the dressing room and we thought [director] Joe [Mantello] was going to say, 'It's been great; have a wonderful run.' And instead he said, 'We have a Waiting for Guffman moment. The show's moving to Broadway.' It was really something."
"I was speechless and slaw-jawed," Houdyshell remembers. "Reed and I know it never happens like this. Never ever." That was October 26, 2015. They ran at the Pels through January 3, 2016, began previews at the Hayes on January 23, and opened February 18.
And now they're getting into the spirit of awards season, with a classic campaign that affectionately imitates the current race for the White House. The result has gone crazy with Broadway fans in the social media world with hashtags and even campaign buttons that read "Feel the Birn" for Birney and "I'm With Her" for Houdyshell.
"Andy Snyder, who works for our press company, had said to me a week before, 'We have an idea,'" Birney says. "I have to say, in that moment, I thought, 'I bet it's Feel the Birn.' I had no idea it was going to be so beautifully done." Both are getting a kick out of seeing their faces on the buttons. "They're fantastic," Houdyshell says with a smile.
Having been around the block several times before this, both actors know the real secret for getting through Broadway's intense awards season, which includes luncheon after luncheon, interview after interview. "I am heavily reliant upon naps," Houdyshell says. "That's the best way to clear my head. But also, we have such a friendly, easygoing company that when we get to the theater and everyone starts chattering, it's very easy to shake off everything and just make the play happen."
Birney is of a similar mindset. "The play is so rich and the world is so easy to enter that it's very easy to forget the cares of the day and we pick up a whole other set of cares doing the play. A wonderful sort of alternate reality takes over. I don't know if you felt this."
"It's true. It's mystical," Houdyshell agrees. "We're really living in that world."
"Look, I never forget that I'm putting on a play, but it's really that family in that room, and occasionally we hear some laughter from far away," Birney adds.
Whether The Humans takes home the statue on June 12, tickets are on sale through July 24 and the cast is on contract through September. Birney and Houdyshell are more than happy to go beyond that. "I would love it," she says. "I would never walk away from this play," Birney concludes. "As I say, I really am so spoiled."