Digging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.
Tony Award winner John Benjamin Hickey returned to Broadway this season for John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation six years (nearly to the day) after opening in Broadway's The Normal Heart, for which he won that coveted statue. “I did have this weird theme in my career where I’ve done about six Broadway plays where they’ve [all] happened like five years a part,” he told Playbill in February. “I would like to be able to say I planned it that way, but nobody ever plans anything, really.” Though he played husband to Allison Janney’s Ouisa in the Tony-nominated revival, Hickey has played a number of trailblazing gay roles on Broadway and Off, including his Broadway debut the Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1995. In this interview from June of that year, Hickey reflects on playing Arthur, moving from Off-Broadway to Broadway, and how playing opposite a new partner gave his performance a whole new meaning.
The road to Broadway for debuting John Benjamin Hickey has been, to be precise and literal about it, five blocks down and two blocks over—from Manhattan Theatre Club, where Love! Valour! Compassion! World premiered last fall, to the Walter Kerr Theatre, where it is currently playing in an open-ended run.
“We were Off-Broadway for three months, then suddenly we’re doing same thing we did there in a bigger house a few blocks away—yet it’s a completely different universe,” Hickey says, trying to sort it out. “It’s like the same experience times three because the audience is three times the size. We’re so spoiled by the terrific response it’d be hard to go back to a 350-seat house.”
The downside to The Big Time: “The Kerr’s an older theatre, so it’s draftier on our naked bodies”—he speaks for his fellow skinny dippers when he says this—“but the water’s warm, thank God. We have a great crew who knows how important warm water is for us. With this play you’re forever taking your Vitamin C.”
Shivers and sniffles aside, the play is basically the same. “There have been a few little things cut here and there since we’ve moved to Broadway. Scenes that used to be separate at the Manhattan Theatre Club have been woven together a little more tightly, which gives the play even more flow than before, if that’s possible?”
The most profound change for Hickey, then, came not with any revisions in the text, but with a casting change that made him reevaluate and reshape his character. Off-Broadway, Perry, lawyer-lover to Hickey’s Arthur, was played by Stephen Spinella, who subsequently heeded a call to Hollywood and left the part of Perry to Anthony Heald. Although Hickey was a fan of Heald’s work, he was still spooked by the prospect of starting over from scratch, reinventing a comfy compatibility, which he and Spinella had slyly conspired to achieve.
Arthur and Perry are the “old marrieds” among the eight gay men at a summer house in upstate New York. These two have lived together so long they’ve begun to look alike. There’s even a line characterizing the couple as “bookends.” Terrence McNally wrote it before the play was cast, but the happy fact that there is a striking similarity between Spinella and Hickey sealed the casting.
“I think Arthur and Perry probably got into this relationship and are as surprised as anyone it has lasted 14 years. They probably just took each day as it came, and here they are 14 years later taking each day as it comes.”
By the time Hickey was offered the Arthur role, he was in love with the character, having been slipped a script by the play’s director, Joe Mantello, when he was directing Hickey at New York Stage and Film at Vassar in Snakebit, a play by Mantello’s co-star in Angels in America, David Marshall Grant.
“Joe had talked to me about the role, but they thought they were going to go older with it. Then, when they saw Spinella, they thought what a great pair we would make—visually. We were right around the same age, and we were suited to each other as far as the sensibilities of the characters were concerned.”
The thespic needlepointing, of course, was undone by the recasting, but Hickey went willingly back to Square One. “I cannot say enough great things about Tony. He didn’t even have much rehearsal time, so I came in and did extra work with him, and we worked stuff out in performance. Tony’s such a pro it became fun.”
Inevitably, the switching of actors produced—in Hickey—a different Arthur. “With Tony’s Perry I’m a little more caretaking, whereas with Stephen’s Perry we were a little bit feistier with each other. It’s a small thing, but it was so interesting for me to reinvestigate the role. It does feel different to me because it made me look at the role in a completely different way; I had to.”
If these characters were columns of the summer house, Arthur would be the last to fall. There was something about good old reliable, dependable, unbreakable Arthur “that really spoke to me—how quiet and centered he was,” Hickey admits. “The challenge, for me, has been to make his quietness and his stillness as interesting as some of the other characters’ flamboyance. Terrence created a tapestry of relationships that just happen to be gay, but these are relationships—especially mine and Perry’s—that any theatregoer can relate to. There’s a great line I have in the play where someone says I’m not a stereotypical gay and I say, ‘Oh, I know. I can catch ball. I like both my parents. I hate opera. I don’t even know why I bother being gay.
“What I find is really fun about playing Arthur is that people come with a preconceived notion of what kind of person a homosexual is and wind up finding someone just like themselves. I think he really takes ’em by surprise. There’s a quote by Barney Frank, the Massachusetts representative who’s the only openly gay representative. He thinks that in this country people are much less homophobic than they think they should be and much more racist than they think they are. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but the first part of that, I think, applies to this play. There are people who come to this play and think, ‘This has nothing to do with my world, and I’m going to feel excluded from this experience,’ and, by the end they’re totally into it and want it to go on.”
Hickey wants the experience to go on as well. “So many friends of mine, after they see the play, look me in the eye and say, ‘Are you aware of what you’re doing right now? This is one of those once-in-a-decade, if not once-in-a-lifetime, experiences.’ It is such a deeply felt play about family. I think it’s wonderfully ironic—in a political climate of such divisiveness, such rhetoric from extremists about what family is—that one of the most old-fashioned family plays to come along in years happens to be about eight gay men.”