Pictured above, from left: Kyle Soller and John Benjamin Hickey in The Inheritance.
No stranger to openly gay dramas, John Benjamin Hickey played Felix Turner, The New York Times reporter who falls for activist Ned Weeks (Joe Mantello), in the 2011 revival of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. His heartbreaking turn as a man wasting away from AIDS won Hickey the Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play. And now, he’s extraordinary once again as gay Republican Henry Wilcox, a man who seems to have closed himself off from loving relationships, in Matthew Lopez’s sprawling two-parter, The Inheritance.
Hickey deftly shows you the man’s humanity before revealing the layers of trepidation that have led to the character’s self-defeating choices. Based on E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End, the play opened to strong reviews last night and has already become the de rigueur theater experience for gays who get the references. I spoke to the out actor about his role as a conduit to our history.
Hello, John. How are you holding up with the play’s schedule?
It’s really amazing how it hasn’t really gotten easier. I’ve been doing it for the better part of two years now, starting in London. It’s like a real mountain climb. This play is very athletic and takes a lot out of you. You have to reboot every time you go to the theater. You have to start to climb all over again. But it’s really fun. How many opportunities do you have to be in a two-part, over six-hour long play? It’s really extraordinary.
You’re basically playing a gay Republican.
Basically. If you had two words to describe him, those would be two apt words. He is a real estate developer, a Republican, a guy who survived the calamity of the AIDS years. He’s someone who lived through it, and there were people who were able to stand up for each other and people who couldn’t show up. Henry was one of those people who got paralyzed with the fear of it. He did not get out of that psychologically intact. I’ve never gotten to play or see a character like that. How many gay Republicans do you meet? You don’t meet that many. So that wonderful seeming contradiction is what makes him so fun to play.
What is the play’s relation to Howards End?
All of the characters are based on or are composites of characters in the Forster novel. Part of the fun of the play is seeing where it runs parallel to the novel—plot twists and what have you—and when Matthew takes off, it becomes a completely different thing. Howards End is always the touchstone for the story he’s telling. And E.M. Forster is a character in the play in the person of Morgan, who helps these young storytellers find their way to gay life in the 21st Century in New York City, under a new political cloud.
With all the accolades, the play arrives in New York with a sort of mantle of importance, but surely you can’t play it that way or it would suffocate.
The thing about the play is it’s so much fun, and when you’re doing it, it feels more like the best Netflix binge watch or a telenovela than “an important new play.” There are comparisons to Angels in America, but I feel Matthew’s writing is closer to Love! Valour! Compassion! It’s a warm-hearted comedy. Audiences gasp and laugh and cry. Matthew is a great storyteller. If it arrives with the mantle of importance, that’s dispelled by how fun the play is to experience as an audience. People have told me, “I can’t believe that was over six hours long.”
So it’s the new Mamma Mia!?
[Laughs] Yes! And Mamma Mia! is mentioned!
You were also in The Normal Heart, about the fury and heartbreak of the early days of AIDS activism. You have become an important figure in the telling of gay stories.
That’s up to somebody else to say, but I’ve been very lucky. I never planned it this way. Twenty-five years ago, Terrence McNally asked me to be in Love! Valour! Compassion! Almost 10 years ago was The Normal Heart. And now, Matthew’s play. It’s been extraordinary for me to be in these wonderful, benchmark gay plays.
But you never did Angels in America?
I never did. I’m the world’s biggest fan of that play. Tony Kushner is one of my cultural heroes. I was doing Snakebit, the play in Chicago that David Marshall Grant wrote, and was asked to come in and audition for Angels, but I couldn’t come in because I was in that play. David said, “I got called to audition, too.” For the same part. I said, “You should do that.” I’m officially taking credit here. [Laughs]
Moving on to another Matthew in your life: This season, you will direct Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker in a revival of Neil Simon’s 1968 three-part comedy Plaza Suite, which I love. You once told me Matthew is the one who notified you that you were Tony-nominated for The Normal Heart.
That’s right! Sarah and Matthew have been friends of mine for over 20-25 years. I always loved the idea of them working together. I asked them to do a reading at Symphony Space. We were looking at things to read. We looked at a lot of Neil Simon plays and we read Plaza Suite and loved how brilliant, heart-rending, and, of course, funny it was as a play about marriage and relationships. The beginning, the end…what an interesting thing for these two to do together. Plaza Suite was already in motion when I agreed to do The Inheritance. [The producers allowed Hickey the temporary out to do the Simon play.] If it works out, I get to have what those of us of a certain age call “a Cynthia Nixon moment”—two things at the same time.
And then you’ll have to run for governor. The movie of Plaza Suite has Walter Matthau in all three male roles, but three actresses in the female roles, whereas the original Broadway production had just one actor and one actress.
I love the movie, but part of the magic of Plaza Suite is to see the same two people do all six parts. There’s an internal confusion in the movie that it’s one guy and three different women. The fun is in suspending disbelief of two wonderful Broadway stars changing their hair and makeup three times together. They’ll see Sarah Jessica in three different outfits. [Laughs] One of the things that’s amazing about the play is that the women’s parts are every bit as strong. They want every bit as much as the men do and they never subjugate themselves to the men. They give as good as they get.