Six Degrees of Separation
Written by John Guare; directed by Trip Cullman
Opened April 25, 2017
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street
|Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey in Six Degrees of Separation (photo: Joan Marcus)|
More than a quarter-century since its premiere, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is the rare play that has entered public consciousness in ways far exceeding the number of theatergoers who have actually seen it: anyone familiar with “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” knows the title refers to the theory that each person is connected to everyone else on the planet by no more than six people, from the most remote cave dweller to, say, Bill Gates.
Whether it’s true is certainly debatable—and it’s probably more true now in our incredibly shrinking world—but it works as a conceit for his play, in which several Upper East Side snobs are taken in by a charming con man who claims to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Based on a true story that occurred a few years earlier, Six Degrees is an acidly funny takedown of the white upper crust, and their racism, classism and homophobia. Guare accurately depicts the state of New York City circa 1990, before the crime rate started dropping and the city was safer for everyone, not only those already ensconced in their ivory towers on Park Avenue.
The original production, zestily staged by Jerry Zaks, starred Stockard Channing as Ouisa Kittredge, who handled Guare’s pungent, often bitchy dialogue with gleeful ease. Her bravura performance also focused the drama on a mother with three ungrateful children who sees Paul, the young black man who talks his way into her home and—for a brief moment—heart before his charade was unmasked, as a lost “son” who needs her guidance and protection.
Channing made Guare’s questionable narrative leap for Ouisa plausible, even touching, and in the new production—staged savvily, if at times too frantically, by Trip Cullman—Allison Janney does the same, equaling her predecessor’s effortless command of the stage. As Ouisa, Janney luxuriates in Guare’s rat-a-tat dialogue, spitting it out forcefully yet caressingly, making lines like “Rich people can do something for you even if you're not sure what it is you want them to do” and “Who said when artists dream they dream of money? I must be such an artist” even more pointedly funny than they are on the page. And with her six-foot tall frame, Janney coolly radiates the luxuriousness of Ouisa’s affluent lifestyle without losing sight of the fact that Guare’s play explores what’s buried beneath the splashy gowns and tuxedos (spiffily designed by Clint Ramos).
Wonderfully complementing Janney is John Benjamin Hickey as Ouisa’s husband Flan; a master of playing flustered characters hiding behind a polished veneer, Hickey is in top form, especially when he and Janney literally finish each other’s sentences in their direct addresses to the audience. Corey Hawkins brings a formidable mix of charm and menace to Paul, a role that has flummoxed other actors, notably Will Smith in Fred Schepisi’s otherwise estimable 1993 film adaptation.
Cullman overdirects the actors playing the spoiled college-age children of the adults Paul has fooled, a shame since the easy laughs they go after are there in the script, without the cheapness. Better are the other parents: Michael Countryman and Lisa Emery as another gullible couple and Ted Eisenberg as a credulous doctor. Paul O’Brien makes a properly gruff detective.
Mark Wendlend’s set is an impressionistic combination of Upper East Side elegance and downtown decay, its half-finished shapes mirroring the large two-sided Kandinsky painting hanging over the stage, which itself figures heavily in the play through its blatant symbolism. No one ever said Guare was subtle, but he gets away with it in Six Degrees of Separation.