Say what you will about Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who's choosy about who gets marriage licenses in her state, but she makes an excellent ice-breaker. Sitting down with the actors playing gay parents in Dada Woof Papa Hot — the new Peter Parnell opus opening Nov. 9 at the Mitzi Newhouse — I bring up her name.
Patrick Breen, the testier of the show's two leads, goes off like Vesuvius, while the more reserved John Benjamin Hickey rushes in with water buckets to douse the flames with a carefully-measured, "The less said about her, the better."
Breen and Hickey play a pair of late-blooming parents feeling their way through a strange new world of preschool concerns — territory occupied in previous generations by heterosexuals only.
"What's so wonderfully specific about this play," says Hickey, "is it raises issues of what it's like for two men to be married and have a child that belongs to one of them biologically. The other feels left out of a triangle that used to be just a couple. He feels alienated, like, 'Wait a minute — what was so wrong with what we had before?'"
"No gay person in his right mind wants go back in the closet, but… in many ways, this play's about the very thin membrane between who we were as gay men and what we will continue to be," says Hickey.
Breen agreed. "It's the Gay Rights Movement's midlife crisis," he chimes in. "There's a joke we talked about in rehearsal: At one time, the joy of being gay was you didn't have to get married and you didn't have to join the army. Well, now we cleared those hurdles, and it's 'I don’t know whether I want this.'"
Neither of them is acting here from personal experience. Hickey has been partnered for 12 years, but has no children; Breen has never been married and has no children. Still, they have several lifelines to turn to for input. Parnell based the play on his own child-rearing experiences with his husband, Justin Richardson; André Bishop, Lincoln Center Theater's artistic director, who picked the play is raising an adopted daughter; and director Scott Ellis is the father of twins. "We can go to them and say, 'Does this ever happen? Do you really have these kinds of discussions?'" says Breen.
"When our characters meet the younger gay couple, I think audiences expect — with four hot gay guys at dinner — the discussion will be sexy and cool," says Breen. "Instead, we talk about school, we talk about childcare, we talk about raising them. It's, like, 'Here’s the pictures of the kids' — the same as any straight couple getting together with parents talking about their kids."
While Breen and Hickey might not have kids, they do have a 24-year-old friendship, forged during their run in Playwrights Horizon's 1991 The Substance of Fire. "I was brought in to replace Patrick, and I was blown away by his performance," Hickey recalls. "I remember thinking, 'Oh, I’ll never be as good as that guy, but at least he won't be around to see that.' Then, I learned Patrick was going to stay with the show and replace Jon Tenney [in another role]. It was a challenge for me." Over the years they co-starred several times, and two years ago they did the first reading of Dada Woof Papa Hot at Lincoln Center.
"André admitted to me afterward, 'This play scares me. It's so political because it has no politics in it,'" says Hickey. "Patrick and I both came of age as actors in the New York theatre when great gay playwrights were writing about gay issues — Tony Kushner, Craig Lucas, Paula Vogel — so we played a lot of gay parts," says Hickey. Even recently, Breen played a man dealing with his boyfriend's life-threatening accident in Geoffrey Naufft's Tony-nominated Next Fall and Hickey won a Tony for his portrayal of an AIDS victim in Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart. "Every gay part I’ve ever played was either about the AIDS crisis, or it was about asking for acceptance from an outside world. 'See, we're just like you, straight people.'
"This play doesn't say that. I think that's what appealed to us so much," says Hickey. "This was the first play I've read where I thought, 'Oh, my God! This is totally from the inside of a normative that never existed before for us.' We were always on the outside looking in, and now we're there." This raises a whole new crop of questions for Hickey. "What do we do with ourselves? What do we do with our pasts? How do we identify ourselves? How do we grow up and become parents?
"Not to speak too generally, but gay culture for gay men has predominantly been very self-reflective, almost narcissistic," he says. "Now, with children, it's turned out, and the focus is on something else besides the self. I think that's what this play's about."