New York City Theater
"Six Degrees of Separation"
Ethel Barrymore Theater
Watch that painting. A two-sided Kandinsky that hangs from the ceiling of an elegant NYC apartment slowly revolves while, below, people play at games they don’t even know they’re in. The revival of John Guare’s masterful tragicomedy of manners and deceptions, “Six Degrees of Separation,” may not have the same impact of the original 1990 production, but it still stirs and soars. It’s a richly ironic play on the price of envy, of haves vs. have-nots, of class consciousness, of the unknowability of the human heart.
The plot is based on fact. Con man David Hampton pretended to be the son of Sidney Poitier, bilking not only the wealthy of food, money and shelter but anyone gullible enough to stake him. In the play, an analogous character, named Paul, engages in the same subterfuges. His victims are, at first, Louisa (“Ouisa”) Kittredge and her art dealer husband Flanders (“Flan”), then a naïve young couple.
Paul, we later discover, found out about people like the Kittredges from one of their children’s Harvard acquaintances, in exchange for sexual favors. Consisting of mundane but telltale bits of information (don’t say “horseback riding,” just “riding” and “sofa, not “couch”), the tutorial allows the charming Paul to take advantage of people whose lives he invades, with sometimes tragic consequences.
Guare is interested in overarching ideas of ambiguity and complexity. The title, which has become a cultural cliché of its own, is explained by Ouisa: “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. It’s a profound thought. . . Every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds.” (Think Kevin Bacon.)
The “other worlds” are not bridged by honesty. “Six Degrees: is about finding out who we truly are, about our values, about life as random and chancy, about the uncertainty and the often-forgotten fact that there are always two sides to every story. Paul is a fraud but he’s a reminder that people, however well-meaning, may be victimized by their back-patting altruism. “The imagination says ‘Listen to me,’” says Paul. “‘I am your darkest voice. . . I am the voice that wakes you up and says this is what I‘m afraid of.’”
Under Trip Cullman’s direction, humor is ever-present, even dominant. Allison Janney’s Ouisa goes beyond gullible. Soignée in Clint Ramos’ sleek costumes, she’s a combination of assuredness and restlessness, an inevitable target for a sensual outsider. Playing ambivalence to the hilt, Janney keeps the audience off-balance.
As Paul, Corey Hawkins equally works the play’s double image. Sure, he’s a con man but there’s something insecure about him, also, a desire to fit in with the people he’s gulling. It’s a brilliant impersonation, resonant with sexuality. As Flan, John Benjamin Hickey is all business, while the large cast, including the eminent Lisa Emery, is a colorful though over-eager lot.
When, at the beginning, a black panel slides ominously onto a red wall of Mark Wendland’s fashionable set, you suspect that, for all its sophistication, this will be a dense play about people who put up a good front. “Six Degrees” riffs on the shared hypocrisy of rich and poor, aristocrat and plebian, confident and anxious – all of us, really.
--David A. Rosenberg
May 15, 2017