When a theatrical work is presented with honesty and integrity and a high level of craftsmanship, quite often I find that the notion of whether or not the critic actually likes it is beside the point. I go back to an article written over 30 years by Stephen King, in which he wrote: “My favorite crime novelist—often imitated but never duplicated—is Jim Thompson. Thompson was rarely reviewed, but when he was he was excoriated. I was in fact originally attracted to him by a review that called Cropper’s Cabin ‘unbearably repulsive.’ I immediately wanted to read that book, figuring anyone with enough energy to get a reviewer to call his work unbearably repulsive must have something going for him.”
The actor for whom, 1984 is a showcase is of course the villain. And sure enough, Reed Birney makes a meal out of it. Birney’s voice isn’t very deep, his physical presence isn’t very menacing—ironically, he’s kitted out to a symbol too: an executive in a suit, one of those behind-the-scenes power brokers we always talk about and always feel powerless to influence. But because he’s the phantom made manifest, he’s the one who isn’t generic, because he has the freedom to fill out his trope. He gets to bend the rules, enforce the rules, make up the rules. He is both the party line and the random factor. And as always, when your leads lack idiosyncrasy, the villain has the best lines. Birney never overplays his hand, but he never has to. His character owns the room. And everybody in it.