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The Fearless Flight of 'Burning Blue'

A surprise hit in London, this insider's look at naval airmen shaken by the military's policy on homosexuality prepares for a landing in L.A.

January 11, 1998|Daryl H. Miller | Daryl H. Miller is a Los Angeles-based theater writer

They sit side by side, D.M.W. Greer speaking earnestly and John T. Hickok nodding his head and half-smiling in sure, steady agreement.

They could be the central characters in "Burning Blue," the tale of do-anything-for-one-another Navy flier buddies that they are here to talk about. Greer, bundled into a bomber jacket, is even dressed for the part.

Yet while Greer and Hickok have, indeed, soared together, they have done so as author and director, respectively, of the play, which became a surprise hit in London in 1995, was optioned for a movie by Working Title Films and arrives at the Court Theatre in West Hollywood on Jan. 30 in its American premiere.

"We have had so many adventures together," Hickok says of the man he describes as "one of my best friends in the world."

"We have a lot of respect for each other," Greer adds. "We've been down in the trenches with each other, and there is probably very little that each of us doesn't know about the other."

Having opened quietly at the King's Head theater in North London in early 1995, "Burning Blue" quickly amassed reams of newsprint as Britons debated its depiction of a naval investigation into alleged homosexual activity. The play moved to the renowned Haymarket theater in the West End, then to the Ambassadors, and the talk continued to fly as fast as an FA-18.

Dazed and delighted, Greer and Hickok--Americans who, by happenstance, had taken the play to London--drank it all in.

Three years later, they find themselves sitting onstage at the Court, amid sections of a set that suggests below decks on an aircraft carrier. Hickok, who designed the set, keeps looking around to evaluate its installation. He lives in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and has been in Los Angeles for a couple of days; Greer, who now spends much of his time in London, is just hours off the plane.

They are different in many ways. Greer is dark-haired and Hickok is light. Greer is almost painfully self-analyzing, while Hickok is laid-back and breezy. Greer grew up in a military family and spent 6 1/2 years in the Navy, training to fly helicopters, then handling Navy public relations in New York City; Hickok has no military experience. Greer had collected just a few acting credits before writing this, his first play, while Hickok holds extensive regional acting and directing credits.

Yet the similarities, they say, are much more striking--such as the fact that both are 40, born just a week apart.

"Our aesthetic senses are very similar," Hickok says. "And we have very similar senses of humor. . . ."

"Which," Greer jumps in to add, "is really important when you're working long hours together."

"Johnny knows exactly how to play me," Greer continues with a grin and a sideways glance at his pal. "He'll say, 'David, this is so great what you did here. This is brilliant, but you know what . . . ' "

Hickok, whose eyes have been crinkling mischievously, jumps in to finish: " ' . . . if we could just make it a little clearer.' "

Set in 1989, with flashbacks to previous events, the fictional "Burning Blue" focuses on the son of a four-star admiral, Lt. Daniel "Dano" Lynch; Dano's best buddy, Lt. Will Stephensen; and the handsome Iron Man competitor who upsets the balance of their friendship, Lt. Matthew Blackwood. As Navy men who fly off of aircraft carriers in the pitching, unforgiving ocean, they live in a world that allows no margin for error. That extends to their personal lives, as they learn when Dano and Matt's sighting in a Hong Kong gay bar brings them under scrutiny as part of the military's no-homosexuals-allowed policies.

Having worked together on this story for 5 1/2 years now, Greer and Hickok have put their lives into each other's hands as solemnly and confidently as these Navy fliers.

Their paths first intersected in 1990 when they were introduced after a performance of a play in which Hickok was appearing. A few months later, they bumped into each other again on the streets of New York. Then, in 1991, they found themselves cast opposite one another in a production of the military drama "A Few Good Men" at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut.

Early on, it was Hickok's wife, Madeleine Homan, whom Greer got to know better, however. She was a career coach and Greer--sampling jobs as diverse as public relations, freelance graphic design and acting--turned to her for guidance.

As part of his career search, he sat down to write the story that had been burning inside him. He shared it with Homan, who passed it along to her husband. Hooked by his first look at "Burning Blue," Hickok became script advisor and director.

The play grew out of Greer's experiences in the Navy from the early to middle '80s--specifically, the pain of losing friends to flying accidents and his frustrated horror at witnessing careers ruined by investigations into alleged homosexual behavior.

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