New York theatregoers have long cherished Jayne Houdyshell and Reed Birney — two of the top stage actors of their generation. So their Tony Awards this year — for best featured actress and best featured actor in a play — came as no surprise. At the peak of their powers, the two give indelible performances in Stephen Karam’s award-winning The Humans, portraying working-class parents in Pennsylvania struggling to survive in America today.
Karam’s family drama centers around the couple’s Thanksgiving visit to their daughter and her boyfriend in downtown Manhattan. The play, which won the Tony Award for Best Play, as well as similar honors from the Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Outer Critics Circle, and Drama League, began its charmed life Off-Broadway at the Roundabout Theatre Company last year before transferring this past January to Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre.
We chatted with Houdyshell and Birney recently at Sardis, the celebrated theater hangout located right next door to the Helen Hayes, where The Humans is playing through July 24. After a two-week hiatus, the production will make its second transfer — this time to a larger Broadway house, the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, on August 9.
Both actors credit playwright Karam for their success, suggesting that they were singled out for Tony recognition from the six-member ensemble cast on the strength of the writing. “It’s just an extraordinary piece. I mean, it is absolutely symphonic in its complexity,” says Houdyshell. “What happens in the play sneaks up on you so surprisingly, and the way he reveals information about these people continually as the play goes on is so unexpected and wonderful. The fact that Reed and I were specifically nominated for Tonys, I think, just speaks to who these characters are in people’s minds — they are such iconic parents. We are often told by audience members that we remind them of their mother and father.”
“It is so meticulously written, so carefully observed,” notes Birney. “As effortless as it seems, it is not accidental. Stephen has really worked diligently to create the sense of natural real life. Every day we do the play, I’m struck by how well crafted it is. And Jayne and I have done enough plays to know exactly how special this is,” he continues. “It is not just the play itself, but the experience of being in it, and then the play being embraced in such a profound way, seeing how it affects audience members, and now the play moving again. There’s not an aspect of it that isn’t miraculous.”
Born a year apart, Birney and Houdyshell followed different paths as actors, but both had to reach their fifties, in the past decade, before their careers really took off. “When I was doing Gemini,” says Birney, looking back at that promising moment in 1977 when he made his Broadway debut in the hit comedy by Albert Innaurato, “if you had said to me, ‘Just wait until you are 55 and things are going to be fantastic,’ I really don’t know that I would have survived. I was very ambitious and young; I was on Broadway at 22. I thought, Here we go! This is going to be amazing! And it wasn’t. I had the least flashy role in Gemini — the leading characteristic of my character was that he was ordinary, while all the others were so flamboyant — so nobody was paying attention to me. I was in the play for a year and a haIf and I couldn’t get another job. It was very hard for me.”
It took Birney three decades before he could truly make his mark. But when he did, it was with no holds barred: In 2008, he stripped himself both emotionally and physically to play the role of a misogynistic, racist tabloid journalist in Sarah Kane’s controversial and violent drama Blasted. “Just before Blasted, I had taken a play for the wrong reason: I thought it was a good career move. It was not, and I had an unhappy experience,” the actor explains. “So I thought, I can’t try and play the game anymore; in the time that I have left, I must just play the parts I want to play. That was, for me, the epiphany. And so Blasted came up and it scared me to death. I thought that was a really good reason to do something.” His new philosophy was validated almost immediately with a string of critical and popular successes. He was lauded Off-Broadway for his performances in The Dream of the Burning Boy, Tigers Be Still, Circle Mirror Transformation, and You’ve Got Older, and was he was nominated for a 2014 Tony for his performance as a cross-dressing activist Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina.
Houdyshell, on the other hand, did steady work for nearly three decades, but not in New York City. The Topeka, Kansas, native did, however, move to the city in 1980 at age 27. “I never aspired to be a temp or a waitress,” she says. “I came out of acting school ready to go and I knew the kind of plays I wanted to do. The idea of being in classical repertory seasons in regional theatres was very stimulating to me. I had a lot of wonderful experiences, but eventually the itinerant lifestyle really got to me. I suddenly felt like I was leading this kind of lonely life; I felt like I was continually saying goodbye. But I also had, after a long period of doing classic plays, a real hankering to know what it was to do new work.”
At some point in the late 1990s, Houdyshell decided to focus on work in New York. “It wasn’t easy at first because no one here really knew me. I floundered for a couple of years,” she reports. “I think I was slightly suspect because I had this big full résumé,” she says with a chuckle. “I think they thought, Is there something wrong with this woman?” She took on every reading and workshop for new work that came her way until she hit the jackpot: getting the role of the semi-invalid mother in Lisa Kron’s autobiographically inspired play, Well. She spent four and half years with the production, which went from Off-Broadway to a regional theatre, before making her Broadway debut with it in 2006. She received her first Tony nomination at age 52 for that performance.
“I remember Jayne was the person everybody was talking about that season,” remarks Birney. She acknowledges, “It was glorious. It was that experience of, all of a sudden, people in New York being aware of my work. But I’ll tell you, given my temperament and personality — and I’m not just saying this in retrospect — I’m glad it all unfolded the way it did. I don’t think I would have been able to handle the kind of ego stuff around being noticed when I was younger. Now I feel like I’m more stable and take all of that in my stride; I don’t take myself too seriously.”
Although The Humans marks the first occasion that Houdyshell and Birney have worked together, they have an easy rapport on stage, playing a middle-aged couple whose relationship has weathered many storms. Establishing a bond was the “easiest part” of doing the play, reports Houdyshell. “I just respected Reed so much and I trusted him as an actor,” she explains. Responds Birney, “I think what I knew from seeing Jayne’s work was that we were similar actors, and that we would just get it. I think we are both keen observers. I feel very spoiled, I have to say, acting with Jayne. I’m a little worried about the next job. This is a tough act to follow.”
It helps too, they add, that their characters are so well defined on the page. “I feel like my character, Erik, is a totem or a representative of most people in the United States,” says Birney. “Most people have very serious concerns about how are they going to get by. They don’t have the luxury of self-reflection. I never played a character like this before — someone who is less articulate than I am. He just thinks in such a completely different way. It is thrilling to be able to play that character in such an authentically written role. I almost feel like we are shedding light on something that that theater doesn’t shed light on very often. And, the most joyful thing is getting to share the stage with this cast every night,” he adds. “Everybody is bringing their A-game every night. Nobody is bored or tired. We are all really working hard, and it is thrilling.”
Speaking about her role, Houdyshell notes: “I think all parents want their children to do better, wherever they are coming from, but especially with first-generation people with immigrant backgrounds. I think Diedre has pride, certainly, that their girls are both college-educated and that they have benefited from the upbringing she have Erik have given them. But I think she is also a little bit mystified by the kinds of lives their daughters lead. She has very natural parental concerns about how her kids are going to do.”
“One of the most challenging and beautiful aspects of playing this role, in particular, is that there are some very distinct resemblances between the character and my mother,” Houdyshell continues. “My mother has been gone a long time, and I feel like I have an opportunity to honor her by doing this role — for me to examine her vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and strengths in such an intimate way. It has turned out to be really healing and edifying for me, in terms of my own relationship with my mum, and in the way the audience responds to Diedre. So many women thank me — they feel like someone is sticking up for them. And that’s a good feeling.”
Photo: Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Arian Moayed, Sarah Steele, Cassie Beck in a scene from The Humans. Credit: Brigitte Lacombe