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If there’s any truth to the adage “Good things come to those who wait,” then veteran actor Reed Birney should be rewarded Sunday night. Birney (CFA’76), who has yet to win a Tony Award after nearly four decades in the business, is nominated for best featured actor in a drama for his critically praised performance in Stephen Karam’s moving family drama The Humans.
The play transferred from off Broadway to Broadway in February. Charles Isherwood writes in his New York Times review, “I have written many times of Mr. Birney’s excellence, but his performance here moved me so deeply I find myself reaching for new superlatives.” In his portrayal of family patriarch Erik Blake, Birney “draws a heartrending portrait of a loving husband, father, and son slowly withering inside, in a state of bemused bewilderment at the unforeseen turns his life has taken.”
Birney is one of four BU alumni nominated this year for a Tony Award, the American theater’s highest accolade.
For the 61-year-old Birney, the nomination is a hard-won honor. He landed his first Broadway role in the long-running comedy Gemini in 1977. But that early success was followed by many lean years, offset by roles in off-off-Broadway productions, occasional supporting guest appearances in television shows such as Law & Order, and teaching gigs. Several times, he contemplated leaving acting altogether.
“There were many long periods where I was flat on my back with despair,” says Birney. But, he adds, “despair is the enemy, and you lose too much of your precious life being sad when sad doesn’t help you one little bit.”
His fortunes began to turn around in 2008, when he played a ruthless journalist who rapes a woman in the off-Broadway drama Blasted, by Sarah Kane. Critics—and a whole new generation of playwrights and directors—took notice. He was then cast in a revival of William Inge’s Picnic in 2012, marking his return to Broadway after a 35-year absence. And two years ago, he received his first Tony nomination, for his performance as cross dresser Charlotte in Harvey Fierstein’s drama Casa Valentina.
Birney describes his current role of Erik Blake, an equipment manager for a Catholic high school in Scranton, Pa., as a regular Joe. “I think he is like many men in America now who are struggling to make ends meet and take care of his family,” he says. “I don’t think he could ever afford to have big dreams. The reality of surviving took all his time and energy.”
The actor was drawn to the play because of the quality of the writing. “It’s one of the most meticulously crafted plays I have ever read,” he says. “And the part is astonishing. I get to go through virtually the full range of human experience every night. The best part of having been alive this long is that I am as beaten up as the character.”
Birney marvels at how fortunate he was to land the part. He typically portrays the guy in a suit—a teacher or a politician. He currently plays Donald Blythe, US vice president, on the Netflix hit series House of Cards. “At this late date in my career,” he says, “it’s very unusual to get to do something you’ve never done. I was nervous about people buying me as a janitor. The challenge was to find a way to play a man who has led an unexamined life. Erik has never had the luxury of self-reflection.”
His performance has struck a chord with theatergoers, many of whom (particularly men) leave the theater in tears. “The play touches everyone on some big level,” he says, “but I think that for men my age, they have never seen their lives and their struggles shown quite like this….I think it is very comforting for them to know that they are not the only ones who struggle.”
The show, which is nominated for six Tonys (and widely considered the favorite to win best play), has already earned a number of prizes this season, including a special Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble, as well as Outstanding Play, earlier this week.
Winning a Tony on Sunday, Birney says, would represent something of a vindication for all the lean years. “I am so happy to know that all the people who said to me, ‘Something will happen, Reed,’ were right. And to know that maybe I wasn’t crazy this whole time. I actually feel grateful for all the early-career heartbreak. It’s cliché, but having to wait this long for this moment has made it that much sweeter.”
Sue Wagner already knows the thrill of winning a Tony—four of them, in fact. One of Broadway’s most prolific producers, Wagner (CFA’97), who works with Joey Parnes Productions, is up for an extraordinary six Tonys this season: for best musical, for Bright Star (lyrics and music by Edie Bricklell and Steve Martin) and Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, starring Audra MacDonald; for best revival of a play, for The Crucible and A View from the Bridge, both by Arthur Miller; and for best new play, for Blackbird and The Humans.
Growing up in New York, Wagner fell in love with live theater as a child. Her parents were musical theater junkies and often took her to shows. “My first Broadway show was Yul Brynner’s final performance in a revival of The King and I, and I remember sobbing at the curtain call. The entire company was, as he was dying of lung cancer at the time,” recalls Wagner. That moment made an indelible impression. “I remember thinking, this is everything. This is how lives get changed.”
Wagner says her years as a student in the College of Fine Arts School of Theatre proved good training for her career. “BU wasn’t the kind of experience where we had endless resources with which to create art,” she says. “Most of the time it was a classroom with track lighting and hideous black and red tiled floors, and then a professor would say, ‘Do a Lanford Wilson play in here.’ So we did. We just had to be resourceful, think outside the box, and make it work. That helped me immensely when I finally got out into the real world and had to make something out of nothing. I was used to it; it wasn’t scary. And the irony is that even when you get to create your art on Broadway, those same confines still exist. The budget isn’t carte blanche—you still need to be crafty and resourceful and think of clever solutions.”
After graduation, Wagner spent a few years working at theaters in New York City, taking any job she could get, and producing guerrilla-style fringe theater in basements and the back of bars when she could. Then she got her first big break: working as an assistant to the legendary Broadway producer Liz McCann. “What I learned from her over the eight years I worked for her was invaluable and an experience I am grateful for every day.” It was there that she met her current producing partners, Joey Parnes and John Johnson.
“There is something that just clicks about the three of us working together,” Wagner says. “We complement each other perfectly…it’s a really nice way of saying we are a three-headed monster. It is nice to have two fearless partners with whom to enter the fray.”
As a producer, Wagner puts together all of the elements that make up a show: the idea, the rights to that idea, artists to conceive and execute the vision, a space to stage the idea, financial resources, and an audience. “My favorite kinds of plays and musicals are the ones where you’re laughing so hard you think you’ll pee your pants, and suddenly you’ve burst into tears because you recognize yourself up there,” she says. “That’s what people come to the theater for. It’s a shared experience and if that experience is hollow or just surface, it doesn’t interest me. For me, it has to pack an emotional wallop.”
Wagner cops to being “weirdly superstitious” on Tony night. She’ll perform a series of rituals, as she does each year, in preparation for the awards ceremony, “because I’m convinced that if I were to change that routine, the luck would run out.” So, she’ll borrow something dazzling from noted Fifth Avenue jeweler Verdura and wear the same pair of Stuart Weitzman shoes she’s worn to every Tony ceremony since 2013.
“I’m convinced they are my lucky charms, and yes, I do have some lucky underwear,” she says.
Other BU alums nominated for 2016 Tony awards are producers James Nederlander (CGS’80), for best play, for The Humans, best musical, for Bright Star and School of Rock, and best revival of a musical, for The Color Purple and Fiddler on the Roof, and Jon B. Platt (CGS’74), for best play, for The Humans and King Charles II, best musical, for Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, and best revival of a play, for The Crucible, A View from the Bridge, and Blackbird.
The Tony Awards ceremony will be broadcast on CBS Sunday, June 12, at 8 p.m. EDT.