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A Small Fire (#110 of 2)

The Right Way: An Interview with Uncle Vanya‘s Reed Birney

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The Right Way: An Interview with Uncle Vanya’s Reed Birney
The Right Way: An Interview with Uncle Vanya’s Reed Birney

Just the mere announcement of a new production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at SoHo Rep, the venturesome Tribeca-based theater company, generated much excitement among New York theater aficionados; the quickly sold-out, initially six-week run is now extended through July 22. A century-old Russian classic is unusual programming for the Obie-award winning company best known as an incubator for contemporary work by emerging writers, but what makes this production noteworthy is the thrilling alignment of three of the brightest talents working in New York theater today: playwright Annie Baker, who adapted a new version of the text, director Sam Gold, and actor Reed Birney in the title role. The three previously worked together on Circle Mirror Transformation, Baker’s keenly observed and deeply felt 2009 drama about a group of people in an acting class. The 31-year-old playwright, whose work includes Body Awareness and Aliens, is one of the leading writers of her generation, while Gold, age 34, is one of the most sought-after directors in town. Birney may not be a marquee name, but he’s one of the finest actors working today in New York City theater. He started his career at age 22 playing the juvenile lead in Albert Innaurato’s Gemini, an Off Broadway hit which went on to enjoy a successful run on Broadway in the mid 1970s. More than three decades later, he experienced a career resurgence with his uncompromising performance in the 2008 New York premiere of Sarah Kane’s Blasted. In 2011, after a remarkable season in which he appeared in three new Off-Broadway plays (Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still, Adam Bock’s A Small Fire, and David West Read’s The Dream of the Burning Boy), the 57-year-old actor was awarded a special award from the Drama Desk for his body of work. We recently spoke with the actor about his career and his current role.

What’s That Smell?: A Small Fire and Dracula

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What’s That Smell?: A Small Fire and Dracula
What’s That Smell?: A Small Fire and Dracula

Adam Bock’s plays need to be handled as delicately as someone balancing an egg on a spoon from room to room; one false move and splat. In works like The Thugs and The Receptionist, Bock explored the underbelly of mundane office worlds (many of us can relate to those), and how their appearances are not always what they seem. Bock’s teasing non-reveals can seem laborious to some and revelatory to others, but I think both camps should be thoroughly satisfied with A Small Fire, a searing new evolutionary step for the playwright, simply in that his furtive playfulness is still there, but in the most accessible and honest of ways. It’s only six days into 2011, but it might not be too early to keep this one on the front burner of truly stellar works, so to speak.

The play begins on a construction site with Emily (Michele Pawk), a hard-talkin’, tough broad who laces the profane and the decent in one luminous whole, and her right-hand man and best friend Billy (The King of Queens’s Victor Williams), a lumberjack-built pigeon racer. Then we shift to Emily’s home life, her seemingly staid marriage to the fervently loyal John (Reed Birney) and her tentative feelings about her daughter Jenny’s (Celia Keenan-Bolger) upcoming nuptials to a cheese importer she clearly doesn’t like. After a kitchen scare in which Emily ceases to smell a gas fire, her senses begin to mysteriously disappear one by one, leaving this once indestructible force of nature stripped down to an unenviable core.