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And the Tony Goes to…

By John O’Rourke

Banner image: Reed Birney (left), who studied at CFA, won a Tony Award for his performance in The Humans, while producer Sue Wagner (’97) won Tony Awards for The Humans and A View from the Bridge. Theo Wargo/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images; Roy Rochlin/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

It appears there is truth to the adage, “Good things come to those who wait.” After nearly four decades in the business, veteran actor Reed Birney won his first Tony Award in June, for best featured actor in a play for his performance in Stephen Karam’s moving production The Humans.

The recognition was hard-won for Birney, who studied at the College of Fine Arts. He landed his first Broadway role in the comedy Gemini in 1977. But that early success was followed by many lean years, offset by roles in off-off-Broadway productions, occasional 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.

The Humans, which won the Tony for best play, transferred from off-Broadway to Broadway in February. Charles Isherwood wrote 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 describes the 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.”

In the trailer above, watch scenes from The Humans. Video courtesy DKCO&M

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 feels fortunate to have landed the part, given that his typical role is 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.”

Three other BU alumni won 2016 Tony Awards. Producers James Nederlander (CGS’80), Jon B. Platt (CGS’74), and Sue Wagner (’97) won for best play, for The Humans. Wagner, one of Broadway’s most prolific producers, won a second Tony, for best revival of a play, for A View from the Bridge. Wagner had already won four Tony Awards before the 2016 ceremony. “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.”