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A Conversation with Actor: Danny Burstein

Before rehearsals began for Talley's Folly, Education Dramaturg Ted Sod interviewed Actor Danny Burstein about the role of Matt Friedman.

Ted Sod: Tell us about yourself. Where were you born and educated?

Danny Burstein:
I was born in Mount Kisco, New York-although my family was living in the Bronx at the time. That's just where I decided to be born. When I was 14, I was lucky enough to get into the High School of Performing Arts. The year I auditioned, more than 4,000 kids auditioned. By some stroke of luck, I was one of the 128 that made it in, which started me on my path to being an actor. I never thought I actually could be an actor. I was always pretty shy and quiet. But I loved the theatre-my dad gave me many plays and books to read. The dramatic form just spoke to me. After high school, I went to Queens College. I studied with Edward M. Greenberg, who ran The Muny (The Municipal Theatre Association of St. Louis). When I was 19, he gave me my Equity card. After Queens College, I got into the Masters program at the University of California San Diego. I promised my parents-who were both teachers-that I would get my Masters so I could teach if this silly little acting thing didn't work out. I spent three years working in San Diego at The Old Globe and La Jolla Playhouse. I came back to New York City in 1990 after graduating from the University of California San Diego. I had a teaching job waiting for me at Queens College. I taught for a semester, but couldn't work out my teaching schedule with my acting schedule because they just didn't jive. So, I had to make a decision. And by sheer luck, I'm sure, I have not stopped working as an actor.

TS: Tell us about your decision to do Talley's Folly?

DB: I was asked by director Michael Wilson and Todd Haimes, Artistic Director, if I wanted to do the role. I said, "Of course I do!" They asked if I would be willing to do double duty for a couple of weeks, rehearsing during the last three weeks of the run of Golden Boy. I said, "Absolutely." I have great respect for Michael Wilson and I'm a huge fan of Sarah Paulson.

TS: What do you make of the character you will play-Matt Friedman?

DB: He is a good man and a lonely soul. Deep down he wants to give his love to someone and be loved in return. But he doesn't have much hope that it will ever happen. And then by some miracle, some "mischievous angel," as he calls it, sends him on a vacation to Lebanon, Missouri and he meets this girl, Sally Talley. I think deep down he had probably given up hope that there would ever be someone that would fall in love with him.

TS: Why do you think he picks Sally? It's fascinating that a Jewish man at that time would go after someone whose family is obviously anti-Semitic.

DB: Sally is smart, has gone to school, and is independent. I think that really strikes a chord with him. She's not like the average gal from the neighborhood. Part of it is his great intuition and part of it is he has convinced himself she's the right one for him. He says, "This is the only time I've ever been in love," and I think he probably feels if it doesn't happen tonight, that's it.

TS: Do you see the play as a straight romance?

DB: I don't know if it's a typical romance. In fact, everything points to them not getting together. There's some bond that ties them, something beautiful. I think he has to convince her that this is the night she should take a chance on love and happiness. That's the crux of the play.

TS: I'm sure it's very difficult for her to make a decision to leave her family because women were not all that independent in 1944.

DB: Exactly. Women just didn't do that. They were supposed to help the men folk and to keep the social status quo. Their job was to be subservient. This is a huge step for any woman.

TS: What kind of research will you have to do to prepare to play Matt?

DB: I've been researching the time. I have actually already done that with Golden Boy-from the depression into World War II and how it affected the country. It has great impact on this play, actually-being that Sally works in a hospital and takes care of wounded soldiers coming back from the war. Matt's not directly involved in the war, but world events have influenced his life as well as hers. So it's very important to know the history and region going into it. His family probably bounced around a lot when he was a young man-I figure he can speak at least four or five languages. The fact that he speaks English so well is an amazing thing, too. He's a super bright person and I hope I can live up to the role.

TS: I want to talk to you about doing a two-hander, a play with only two characters. Have you ever done one before?

DB: The last time I did a two-hander wasin schoolwhen I did Christopher Durang's play Laughing Wild. In a two-hander, it's just you and someone else out there, who you've got to trust 100 percent. Your concentration can't let up for one second. It's not like there's a big ensemble to carry you if something happens. I think it's going to be the most difficult role I've ever done.

TS: What about this role do you sense will be your biggest challenge?

DB: I honestly don't know. I try to make all my work as honest as possible. I want the audience to feel like they're watching two people talking-having a conversation-as opposed to watching actors fake it. I want the audience to get lost in the fact that this is so good it could be real.

TS: Do you want the audience to feel as if they're eavesdropping?

DB: Exactly. But this is an unusual piece because Matt talks to the audience at the very beginning of the show and invites them into his predicament. He asks for the audience's patience and tells them to root for him. I think it's a terrific way to start this romantic play.

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