No stranger to Roundabout, Picnic will mark Birney's third Roundabout production. During those off-Broadway years he made appearances in two new plays produced through the Roundabout Underground program: Tigers Be Still and The Dream of the Burning Boy.
Before collaborating on Picnic, Sam Gold directed Birney in Kim Rosenstock's Tigers Be Still. Birney's portrayal of a grief-stricken father was praised by critics. New York Times reviewer, Charles Isherwood, commended his delicate approach to one particular scene in which Birney attempts to cancel his wife's magazine subscription without being able to admit her death, calling him "...reliably excellent."
After Tigers Be Still, Birney returned to the Roundabout Underground's Black Box Theatre later that season to take part in the spring 2011 production of The Dream of the Burning Boy.
Written by David West Read (who went on to pen The Performers), the play centers on Larry Morrow, a high school English teacher who is haunted by the sudden death of one of his students. While surrounded by the student's grieving friends and family and receiving aggressively sympathetic attention from the overzealous school guidance counselor, Larry is holding on to a secret that is burning inside of him. Isherwood observed that "Reed Birney is quickly becoming New York's foremost actor in a particular subspecialty, communicating the grief of average men facing extraordinary loss...Coincidentally-I assume-each of the characters he's played has been a man enduring harrowing circumstances with soft-spoken fortitude. Not at all coincidental is the tight focus and unflagging emotional integrity he has brought to each of these quiet but challenging roles. "
This can certainly be applied to Birney's performance in Picnic. As Patrick Healy points out in hisNew York Times article, "Mr. Birney's character, Howard Bevans, has no showiness on paper, but actors have made the most of the part: Arthur O'Connell was nominated for a supporting actor Academy Award as Howard in the 1955 film (which starred William Holden and Kim Novak), and Larry Bryggman drew a Tony Award nomination for the previous Broadway revival in 1994." Howard may not be the "showiest" of characters, but he plays an important role in some of the most comedic and dramatic moments in Picnic. It's not surprising that actors who have portrayed him in the past have been recognized for their performances. Continuing to show focus and emotional integrity, Birney is no exception to the rule when it comes to leaving an impression as Howard.