We all know the urge to get out of the city.
Whether we’re born and bred New Yawkers escaping for a weekend, or staunch suburbanites heading back on the Long Island Rail Road after a day of sightseeing, we’ve all enjoyed that same sigh of relief upon crossing the city line.
That relief is palpable in “The Inheritance,” Matthew Lopez’s epic new play — two parts, six-plus hours, 28 characters — that just opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Directed by Stephen Daldry, the landmark production full of laughs, lust and heartache concerns a group of gay millennial men from the marriage-equality era trying to connect with Baby Boomers who lived through the AIDS crisis. Much of the tale takes place in the city, both now and in the 1980s, but significant events occur in the Hamptons, Fire Island and upstate New York, where various characters take refuge.
Tony Award winner John Benjamin Hickey (who stars in the play) and Tom Kirdahy (who produced it) both love the city but have relished the relief felt outside it. In unexpected ways their personal ties to Long Island have helped shape this production. In fact, were it not for Kirdahy and a chance meeting in East Hampton that changed his life forever, this play — arguably the most eagerly anticipated theatrical event of the season — might not have made it to Broadway.
From 'Howards End' to the East End
It's some two hours into “The Inheritance” when Hickey finally strides onstage. The actor, known for recurring roles on “The Big C,” “The Good Wife” and “Law & Order,” plays gay businessman Henry Wilcox, and if you’re a Brit lit fan, yes, the name is swiped from E.M. Forster’s classic novel “Howards End,” which inspired this modern-day update.
This Wilcox is politically conservative, mega-rich and a longtime resident of the Hamptons.
“Only one of those things is true for me,” says Hickey, laughing.
For some 30 years, Hickey has spent time in the Hamptons, and four years ago he and his partner, Emmy-winning producer Jeffrey Richman, bought a cottage in Springs, a cozy hamlet popular with artists (Jackson Pollock’s house is now a museum there).
“You’ve got [Gardiners] bay on one side, the ocean on the other, so the way the light hits the sky — that pink and blue — is like nowhere else I’ve seen,” says Hickey.
He’s observed larger-than-life figures like Wilcox out East. For Hickey, having a house there has helped him find his character and bring him to life. His place isn’t nearly as glitzy, he insists, as the East Hampton beach house that figures in this play and sets the scene for a super-chic party, a ruined wedding and a rather unfortunate (though amusing) upchuck incident involving Meryl Streep.
Of course, Hickey and Wilcox share more than just a ZIP code.
Like his character, Hickey arrived in New York in the early 1980s, at the start of the AIDS crisis. Then a Fordham University student and not entirely aware of his sexual identity, Hickey had heard in the news that “there was something happening about sex — gay sex — that was horrifying. So I arrived scared. Which, in retrospect, may have been lifesaving. Who knows? But I came just as it was cracking open.”
In the play, Hickey’s character reacts by retreating to fortresslike homes in the Hamptons and upstate, and rejecting his partner, Walter (tenderly played by Paul Hilton), who ministers to the sick and dying.
For those who lived through this period, the play, which originated in London, is a visceral experience.
“It’s a real New York play and lands in a different way here,” notes Hickey. “It hits you in your heart, and stomach. Because it’s about home — and what we all went through.”
Searching for Stonewall
The last thing Kirdahy wanted to do was read “The Inheritance.” When the playwright’s agent sent the script two years ago, Kirdahy was on vacation.
The agent pleaded, so Kirdahy started reading, and came upon an early scene describing Walter’s arrival in New York in 1981. On that first day, Walter searches for the famed Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 riots against police harassment that birthed the gay rights movement. He learns the bar closed shortly after the riots, replaced by a Chinese restaurant.
Kirdahy was stunned.
“That’s as close to my story as I’ve ever read,” he says.
He also arrived in New York in 1981 (to attend New York University), and went to The Stonewall his second day. “By the time I arrived, it was a bagel shop,” Kirdahy recalls. “I knew I was gay — I was frightened, alone, and there was no sign this had been the birthplace of a revolution. It was heartbreaking. I went inside, had a bagel and said a prayer.”
Reading about this period triggered a flood of memories, and by the time he’d finished the first act Kirdahy was sold. “I wrote the agent and said, ‘I’m doing this play.’ ”
A few years earlier, such power would’ve been unthinkable.
Kirdahy grew up in Hauppauge in a sprawling Irish-American family, the sixth of seven children. Dad was superintendent of schools in West Islip; his mom was a clerk typist. Kirdahy loved theater at an early age, and put on shows in his backyard with friends, including a young Donna Murphy, who grew up across the street.
His passion for theater grew at Hauppauge High School, which offered theater classes (acting, history, design). Yet thoughts of theater (and a possible career in entertainment law) faded after graduating from law school. The AIDS epidemic was decimating a generation, and he began providing free legal services to people with HIV and AIDS, helping to create the first such program on Long Island with Nassau-Suffolk Law Services. He later worked for Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the Bronx. After a decade, he was burned out and needing to go home again.
He retreated to Riverhead, offering legal services to locals and renting a modest space in Flanders.
Then comes … what? Luck? Destiny? In 2001 as head of the East End Gay Organization, he arranged a panel discussion at Guild Hall featuring famed playwrights Edward Albee, Lanford Wilson and Terrence McNally.
Kirdahy and McNally hit it off, romance blossomed, and in 2003 they participated in a civil-union ceremony in Vermont. They were officially married in Washington, D.C., in 2010, and reaffirmed their vows (with Mayor Bill De Blasio officiating) in 2015.
With his spouse an acclaimed playwright (and four-time Tony winner), Kirdahy’s love of theater reignited. He began apprenticing with producers, learning the intricacies of fundraising, marketing and artistic guidance.
Today, he’s a leader in the field, though his work on “The Inheritance” only reminds him of his previous efforts on behalf of those with HIV and AIDS. “The names and faces of clients just race through my mind constantly. Constantly. And it’s hard to explain just how profound it is.”
He tries to do just that.
“I work with young theater professionals in their 20s and 30s, and we have almost daily conversations about what it was like back then versus now,” says Kirdahy. “And my husband is 25 years my senior, so I’m genuinely mindful of generational change. I do think we forget the past at our peril. I love ‘The Inheritance’ because I think it’s entertaining, and a truly great play. But it’s not a lecture. It’s a conversation across generations that is essential.”
Hauppauge native Tom Kirdahy is one productive producer behind the following shows now running in New York City.
'HADESTOWN' — Broadway’s popular myth makeover by Anaïs Mitchell won eight Tony Awards including best musical. This month, Kirdahy and his co-producers announced the show is the first of the 2018-19 season to recoup its initial investment (of $11.5 million).
'LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS' — This Off-Broadway revival of the beloved homicidal horticulture musical earned raves and was recently extended through Jan. 19 at the Westside Theatre.
'THE INHERITANCE' — The dramatic two-parter about the AIDS crisis “is kind of the culmination of my life’s work,” says Kirdahy, who earned an Olivier Award for his London production.