Danny Burstein insists that the joy of being a father most prepared him, paradoxically enough, for playing Matt Friedman, a desolate figure who refuses to bring children into this world, in the revival of Lanford Wilson’s “Talley’s Folly.”
“Because the love and happiness you get from children is so great, what Matt went through to arrive at that position must have been overwhelming,” the three-time Tony Award nominated actor said in his dressing room at the Roundabout’s Laura Pels Theatre before a performance. “The idea of not passing along the baton to someone else, not leaving something behind… that creates such sadness inside and helps me feel the loss and emptiness of his life.”
“Talley’s Folly” centers on the evolving romance between an emotionally disenfranchised WASP heiress named Sally (Sarah Paulson) and a deeply troubled, heady Jewish Lithuanian refugee (Burstein) in Missouri, 1944. Both are outsiders, though Friedman is clearly the more marginalized, with a tortured past in turn-of-the-century Europe. He witnessed unspeakable atrocities, losing his own parents and sister.
The affable Burstein, who was attempting to finish a sandwich throughout our interview, says he understands what it’s like to feel alienated. Born to a Costa Rican mother and a Jewish father, he was always the odd man out, though he said he identifies most strongly as a Jew. Indeed, he was labeled “Jew” growing up in a blue-collar Irish community in the Bronx and Queens, and the memories cast a long shadow.
“The kids would throw pennies at me,” he noted. “They wanted me to go scrambling to pick up the pennies. It was the idea, ‘Go pick up the pennies, Jew.’ Those are the things that stick with you when you are 6 or 7. You don’t forget it.”
His father’s influence in his life was equally potent in shaping his performance. A philosophy professor who introduced young Burstein to plays, theater and other live performances, he lost many members of his family in the Holocaust.
Burstein’s extraordinary performance combines brashness and vulnerability, most pointedly expressed in his recalling the brutal death of his sister. The actor’s throwaway delivery, belying the most profound horror, is a bone-chilling moment, punctuated by a split-second pause before commenting that her death “turned out to be of little consequence, people in Europe being very wasteful.”
Matt’s despair, coupled with the need to cover it up, defines him, which explains why his relationship with Sally is such a watershed. “This is the only time he finally feels something for another person and is able to open up and talk about his experience and be 100% honest with her,” Burstein said. “It’s the first time he’s fallen in love.”