Quick Wit: Reed Birney
Mr. B. of The Butterfly Collection talks to Ricky Spears about Theresa Rebeck, the Weisslers, and Colleen Dewhurst.
Reed Birney, currently appearing at Playwrights Horizons in Theresa Rebeck's The Butterfly Collection, is an actor's actor. You'll find nary a mention of any film or television work in his Playbill bio. His life is the stage.
Since his New York debut in 1976 in Albert Innaurato's Gemini, Birney has racked up a considerable number of stellar performances. He appeared in the world premiere of Neil Simon's Hotel Suite, and The Butterfly Collection marks the fourth time he has worked with Rebeck. The father of two and a longtime New York City resident, he definitely has greasepaint in his blood. Just before a Saturday trek to a matinee, this busy actor took a few minutes to chat about his great love of the stage.
You made your New York debut in Gemini. What is your favorite memory of that time?
The whole surprise of the thing. We were only supposed to do nine performances at Playwright's. We knew it was a really fun and really great show, but we also thought it would be nine performances and that would be the end of that. Then it was picked up and eventually found it's way to Circle Rep, and then to Broadway. I was 21. It was a real roller coaster ride.
Did that show earn you your Equity card?
Actually no, I had gotten my Equity card two years before, doing some children's theater that Barry and Fran Weissler produced before they went on to torture people on Broadway. Back then, they were torturing people doing children's theater.
What's the story behind your continued professional relationship with Theresa Rebeck?
I did some one-acts of hers in 1991, and she's remembered me for her new plays. I don't think any of them have been written with me in mind, though.
When you were a kid, is this where you thought you'd be in the year 2000?
I remember being in fifth grade and the teacher saying, "How old will we be in the year 2000, let's do the math." I was going to be 45, and I had a picture of my life. I thought I would be a far more successful actor than I am, but I saw myself with kids even then.
Have you always lived in New York?
I've tried Los Angeles. The longest I've been able to last there is about five months. They so don't get me out there.
What role would you like to play that you will never get to play?
Edmond in Long Day's Journey.
Do you have a hero?
I think in terms of actors I most admire. Of all time, I'd say Spencer Tracy and also Henry Fonda. But of actors today whose work I most admire, I'd say Tom Hanks.
Do you have a pet peeve?
Just the fact that, after 26 years, I still feel like there's all this struggle involved in being an actor.
What's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on stage?
When I first started doing children's theater, we were on the road and we were doing two terrible productions in schools; one was The Swiss Family Robinson, updated and modernized. During one performance, I was standing on a tree stump singing this big song when the principal of the school walked on stage and said there was a bomb scare. The entire place had to be cleared and the lights were suddenly turned on. And there I was, standing there thinking how insane my life was, wearing blue eye shadow in front of kids who were falling asleep.
What's your favorite four letter word?
Oh, my God. I suppose "love" would be my favorite four-letter word.
If you could wake up in the morning with a skill that you don't already have, what would it be?
I wish I could type or play the piano. Either one!
What's your favorite sound?
My kids laughing.
What was your favorite childhood game?
Puppet shows. There are five kids in my family and we would often do them together, but I would also do them by myself for hours.
What gets you really choked up?
Any story that has to do with kids.
Do you prefer rock or show tunes?
Morning or night?
I guess night.
Intimate gathering or a wild party?
Is there a stage performance that has really inspired you?
I remember, when I was in college, I came down to see A Moon for the Misbegotten with Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards. I saw a matinee and walked out on the street and burst into tears about 10 minutes after the play was over. Frances Sternhagen is a family friend and she was in The Good Doctor at that time, so I went over to meet her after her matinee and I said to her that I didn't know how those two could give performances like that. I said that I thought Colleen Dewhurst must have had to get to the theater hours beforehand to prepare. And I remember Frances telling me, "Actually no, Jason is always mad at her because, right up until 'places' is called, she's always running into the bathroom and cracking people up and stuff." That performance has haunted me every since. I actually told someone the other day that I feel like I've seen all the performances that are going to effect me that way--but Judi Dench was pretty great in Amy's View, so there is still hope.
Last question. What's your favorite way to relax after a show?