John Benjamin Hickey and Allison Janney were first married 20 years ago—well, in the casting sense of the word. “When we were doing Blue Window Off-Broadway, we were both cast as a married couple in The First Wives Club,” explains Hickey. After 12 hours of waiting inside a Winnebago to shoot their scene, “somebody knocked on our door at 6 PM and said, ‘Goldie [Hawn] has decided that she doesn’t want to do this scene.’” “We still get residuals,” adds Janney. Hickey chimes in, “Once every few years I call Allison to be like, ‘I got a check for $17.’”
Now Hickey and Janney reunite in the revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, which opened April 25 at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Janney and Hickey play Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, a Central Park West couple swindled into taking in a young man who claims that he knows their children from Harvard and needs a place to stay before meeting up with his father, Sidney Poitier. Struck by the possible brush with fame, the couple falls for the con. “He does it live and in person, he catfishes them,” says Hickey, “makes them sort of see what’s fraudulent in their own life.”
The play begins moments after their well-to-do bubble pops, but lurches back in time thanks to Guare’s nonlinear structure.
If it sounds like a lot to wrap your brain around, Janney and Hickey feel the same. “I looked at Hickey [in rehearsal] and I was like, ‘We’re going to be out there, we can’t [cut]!’” says Janney, who currently stars on CBS’ Mom and is perhaps best known for her Emmy-winning turn as C.J. Cregg on The West Wing. “I’m trying to get baseball signals to him and saying, ‘Oh my God, I’m drowning!’” But if Janney feels daunted by the task of returning to Broadway for the first time in seven years, she also feels excited and comforted by her safety net: Hickey.
“This is where I began my whole career, with this gentleman,” she says.
Since 1996’s Blue Window and First Wives Club, the two have worked together in movies (The Ice Storm) and onstage (Williamstown Theatre Festival), and built a friendship that has lasted nearly 30 years.
“We’ve seen each other at our best and at our worst and [when] we look at each other we know what the other one has been through,” says Hickey. “It’s easy for me to see [Six Degrees] as a play of a marriage because I have that with the person I’m doing this play with.”
Whether laughing at old memories or trying to trade their interview answers for each other’s—“That’s a better answer, go with his,” “Use hers!,” “The one he said!”—it’s easy to see their affection for each other; it makes for a more stable marriage onstage, too.
“In the theatre, you’re always getting to revisit,” says Hickey. “You’re always revisiting moments.” And for Hickey and Janney, they also get to revisit each other.