By MARK BLANKENSHIP
If Reed Birney seems especially connected to his character in The Dream of the Burning Boy, it's because he's been uniquely involved in his development.
Birney has been collaborating with playwright David West Read, who's making his New York debut with this production, part of the Roundabout Underground series for emerging writers. Both in rehearsal and out, they've discussed the script with an intimacy usually reserved for playwrights and directors, or sometime playwrights and dramaturgs.
Granted, director Evan Cabnet has also been a major part of the conversation, but by making room for Birney's voice, the production has tweaked the typical model for creating new work.
Birney stars as Larry, a high school English teacher who must reveal an old secret after one of his students, Dane, dies at school. One reason he's been so involved with the development of the show is that's he's been playing Larry for two years, across several workshops as well as in this production. That's longer than even Cabnet and the Roundabout have been involved. "It's hard for me to think of anyone else playing the character because I identify it so closely with Reed," says the playwright. "It's been invaluable to be able to talk it through with him."
But that's not the only reason Birney's been integral to the process. He's also one of Off Broadway's most respected actors, having recently starred in Blasted, A Small Fire, and Circle Mirror Transformation, and as Read points out, that makes him an expert: "As I'm just starting out in my career, he's been doing this for something like thirty-six years. He's got a few nuggets of wisdom to pass on."
Take the first scene: In an early draft, Dane died on stage as he and Larry were discussing an assignment. (Now he dies off stage, shortly after the meeting is over.) Birney recalls, "I remember saying at a coffee shop a year and a half ago, 'I don't know why he needs to die on stage. We're three minutes into the play. It's possibly a very exciting way to start, but it's also really tough to ask the audience to feel something for characters that they don't even know yet.'"
Birney's input also comes from his experience as an actor. Earlier this week, he suggested that the final scene, where Larry faces his past, could be more powerful if a crucial line was delivered later. "He was able to explain from an actor's perspective what the specific line was for him that got him to the place he needed to be at the end of the play," says Read. "That was incredibly helpful."
That kind of input could boost any new show, but there are several factors that keep actors out of the loop. Some of them simply want to show up and act, for instance, and some directors and playwrights don't want extra voices in their most intense conversations.
And besides, writers and directors often get to the party first. "Usually, I'll come on board at the beginning of the rehearsal process," Birney says. "I feel like I can be very involved in those three weeks of rehearsal, but the play's been workshopped for years."
No matter who's involved, of course, Read is still responsible for the final script. "David has done all the work," Birney says. "Whatever gentle prodding we've done along the way, he's come to everything on his own."
That, perhaps, is another reason Birney has been such a successful collaborator: Like any good theatre artist, he senses the dividing line between "enthusiastic input" and "overbearing commands."
"Reed is really selective when he says, 'Oh, I have an issue with this moment,' and that makes me take it seriously when he does say something." Read explains. "I don't think anyone's trying to write my play. As a collaboration between director and actor and playwright, it's helping me get what I wanted to begin with."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor