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Asked if Sally’s appeal is precisely her “otherness” (the fact that she is an All-American WASP), Burstein acknowledged that element. “But they meet on a higher level — shared intellectualism and emotionalism — that has nothing and everything to do with who they are,” he said. “When it comes down to it, it’s about a man and a woman who share similar values and fall in love, despite society holding them back and saying they shouldn’t be in love.”
Roundabout’s artistic director, Todd Haimes, entered the dressing room to remind Burstein that he would soon be expected at a talkback with theater patrons who had gathered for a preperformance reception.
Taking a few rapid bites of his sandwich, Burstein conceded that he finds talkbacks before a performance somewhat puzzling. Not that he’s complaining. It’s a minor distraction in a seemingly smooth-sailing career. With the exception of one semester of teaching at Queens College, Burstein has worked steadily as an actor nthroughout his adult life.
“As a kid, I made a pact with the devil,” he remarked. “I said I wanted to do good work, and I didn’t care about any of the fame stuff. Why are you looking so skeptical?” he asked me, laughing.
At the moment, though, Burstein’s thoughts are focused on “Talley’s Folly” and on the more unusual challenges he faces, particularly mitigating Matt’s aggressiveness to mesh with the demands of contemporary sensibilities. In 1944, a persistent character like Matt was probably viewed as manly while the object of his affections was flattered. Today, in all likelihood he’d be seen as a nuisance at best. Burstein recognizes the thin line between adhering to the character’s truthfulness and creating a likable figure for a modern audience.
“Yes, we talked about this, but you have to ultimately believe that Sally is someone who is tied up in a spider’s web and Matt is actually clipping the web to release her from the chains of everything that her family represents,” he said, adding that he never worried about Matt appealing to the stereotype of the pushy Jew, either. “I’m always careful to play individuals as opposed to caricatures.”
Consider his subtle approach to representing Friedman’s accent as Continental with a hint of Yiddish. The stumbling block was how much Yiddish inflection he wanted to incorporate.
“This man very much wants to be assimilated,” Burstein said. “He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself; he wants to live under the radar. He doesn’t want to sound overly Jewish or overwhelmingly German, either. Also, he speaks four or five languages, though his first language was probably Lithuanian.” Burstein worked with a dialect coach to meld all the elements. Still, it was challenging, because, he said, Lanford Wilson wrote his dialogue with a “backward syntax, as if it was a foreign language. And the words don’t flow.”
Though he says that the play speaks to all audiences, Burstein says that it may have special resonance for Jews, “who have had a long history of suffering, yet also experienced great triumph, like Matt and Sally. That’s a beautiful image: to come away from a play with its hopefulness for Jews and gentiles alike.”
Simi Horwitz writes frequently about theater for the Forward.