In the current revival of William Inge’s 1953 play Picnic, Elizabeth Marvel and Reed Birney play Rosemary Sydney, an aging schoolteacher, and Howard Bevans, a middle-aged businessman. Onstage, they are an unconventionally unmarried couple, whose post-curtain fate is left largely up to the audience’s imagination — though their chances of happiness look pretty bleak.
As the revival of Picnic at the American Airlines Theatre nears its last performance, we spoke with Marvel and Birney to get their take on the show’s unanswered question, backstage pastimes, and dealing with rejection from Broadway’s favorite torso.
Names: Elizabeth Marvel/Reed Birney
Roles/Show: Rosemary Sydney, Howard Bevans/Picnic
1. What is your favorite line that you delivered?
Marvel: “I’m more myself than I’ve ever been.”
Birney: Probably the famous one, ‘if a woman wants me to marry her she could at least say please.’
2. Everyone loves inside jokes. So tell us…
a. What’s the best one from your show?
b. Since there probably is one, what’s the punch line of your cast’s most unprintable inside joke?
a) Birney: Mare [Winningham] has a line towards the end about how she’s been running around like a chicken with her head cut off. And one day she said she’s been running around ‘like a chicken with its legs cut off.’ So we’ve been having a very good time with that.
b) Marvel: Ellen Burstyn made a joke about 2 pricks the other day.
Birney: ‘ It looks like she’s got two long skinny pricks.’
3. Every show experiences technical difficulties. What was the worst technical difficulty to be experienced during your show and how was it handled?
Marvel: Maddie left a cigarette burning onstage that we thought would create a fire. It created a wall of smoke but eventually I think she went back on and put it out. Fortunately, the set did not burn down. But we’ve been pretty fortunate with technical stuff. Small stage fires are the only problem thus far.
4. What was the most “interesting” present someone gave you at the stage door?
Birney: Somebody brought backstage two juice glasses which seemed apropos for a Picnic.
5. Who is the coolest person that came to see your show? (You can’t say your family!)
Marvel: My son’s first grade teacher Claire Benner! It was very exciting and nerve-wracking.
Birney: Jessica Lange.
6. You have a lot of down time during the show. How do you spend your time off stage?
Birney: Well, I share a room with Chris Perfetti. He plays Bomber so he’s also backstage a lot. And we spend a lot of time watching Youtube videos. We have discovered the Punchy Players and they do these hilarious Judy Garland videos.
7. It’s been over 30 years since you were last in a Broadway show. What’s it like returning to Broadway after such a long hiatus?
Birney: Well on one hand, it’s like no time had passed, and on the other hand, the learning curve…everything is bigger, the set…the audience…the performers. You have to speak more loudly. I’m struck by the size of Broadway. I’m used to houses of about 200. [The American Airlines Theatre] has got about 715.
8. a. If you could have the audience leave understanding one thing about Rosemary, what would it be?
b. How do you handle being rejected by Sebastian Stan 8 times a week?
Marvel: a) The thing I love most …with her is…her appetite to enjoy life…against giving up.
b) [Laughs] I handle it by first being able to climb all over him.
9. Assuming age/gender-blind casting what role in Picnic would you most like to play and why?
Birney: I think I’d like to play Flo, Mare Winningham’s character. I think the depth of her sadness is very moving and would be wonderful to explore.
Marvel: I’d like to play Bomber. I think it would be lovely to pop in at the top and at the end…I’d get a lot of reading done. I’d also love to play Flo. I never get to play the maternal feminine steady hand. I’m always having to lose my mind. I’m so enamored with what Mare is doing with the role that it’s made me really fall in love with the role.
10. What do you think happens to Rosemary and Howard after the play ends?
Marvel: You know, I’m glad you asked that question. Because people always say, ‘poor Howard,’ and I disagree. I think Rosemary is the best thing that ever happened to him. I think they end up great friends. They could end up partners on the bridge circuit and be popular guests at parties. I think they have some fun in front of them.
Birney: I think they stay together and live out their lives. I’m not sure they have the most fantastic marriage in the world, but I think it means the world to Rosemary to have a husband. I don’t think Howard’s going to be all that happy. I think they do fine but I don’t think it’s a great love affair.