Any doubt that John Guare's 1990 sharp-edged comedic drama "Six Degrees of Separation" is one of the finest contemporary American plays should be put to rest by the terrific new Broadway revival starring Allison Janney ("The West Wing"), John Benjamin Hickey ("The Normal Heart") and Corey Hawkins ("Straight Outta Compton"). The play (which was adapted into a 1993 film with Will Smith) popularized the idea that everyone in the world is connected by just a handful of people (i.e. "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon"). But it also displays a class-based society, where an Upper East Side penthouse is a world away from a homeless youth sleeping in Central Park - though not necessarily impenetrable.
SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION Broadway Reviews
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On the evidence of the spectacular revival that opened tonight at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, with a cast led by Allison Janney (Mom, The West Wing), Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton) and John Benjamin Hickey (The Normal Heart), either it's been a very long moment that Guare captured. Or, more likely, Six Degrees transcends its particulars and addresses something ineffably human: The terrifying gulf between how we see ourselves and how we need others to see us. That's a theme for the ages, from Moliere to Arthur Miller to Tony Kushner. Guare, however, using a brief, intriguing newspaper report as his jumping off point, found a way in Six Degrees to make us laugh in the face of our own insufficiency in bridging that midnight-dark gulf.
The 2011 Broadway revival of The House of Blue Leaves was too unbalanced to do the job, but Trip Cullman's razor-sharp staging of Six Degrees of Separation serves as a welcome reminder of the fiercely intelligent, pungently funny voice of playwright John Guare at his vintage best. The thoroughbred Allison Janney stars as Ouisa Kittredge, a well-heeled Manhattan WASP who dreams in dollar signs until a beguiling young African-American trickster, imbued with both obfuscation and naked yearning by Corey Hawkins, exposes her to the spiritual emptiness beneath her complacent sophistication. While those two sensational performances occupy the play's molten center, the entire large ensemble that surrounds them is on fire.
It's 1990 all over again in "Six Degrees of Separation," a period-faithful revival of the John Guare play -- based on real events -- about a clever con artist who convinces an erudite Upper East Side couple that he's the son of Sidney Poitier. Allison Janney, who is as skilled in drama as she is in comedy, leads the cast as privileged Ouisa Kittredge, whose small dinner party with husband Flan (John Benjamin Hickey) is interrupted by the arrival of a young man with a minor stab wound who claims to be a Harvard classmate of her children.
The good news on the Broadway revival of "Six Degrees of Separation" is great news. Twenty-seven years after the debut of John Guare's comedy of manners and mores in Manhattan, "Six Degrees" retains its place as one of the great American plays of the late 20th century. The revival, which opened Tuesday at the Barrymore Theatre, also is a reminder of a time in the theater when two- and three-hander dramas did not dominate the nonprofit world. True, Lincoln Center Theater, which originally produced the Guare play, is now staging a new American drama, "Oslo," with a cast of 18. The cast of 18 in "Six Degrees" is especially astounding because it is possible to imagine the play with just its three principal characters: Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, the art-dealer couple living on the Upper East Side in 1990, and the young black man Paul, who is the alleged son of Sidney Poitier.
Broadway's crazy good revival of "Six Degrees of Separation" is proof of theater's enduring impact. Even if you've never seen John Guare's smart, juicy and still-potent 1990 comedy - or the film version - you probably know the meaning of the title. You've likely used it in conversation. Guare didn't invent the notion of six degrees, but his play, based on true events, popularized it and made it shorthand for how everybody's connected. Or, on the other hand, kept at a distance - by just six other people.
The production, directed with compassion and merciless hilarity by Trip Cullman, has a wonderful, luxuriously large cast, with some actors dropping in for just a few perfectly pitched scenes. Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey are blissfully snooty yet insecure high-end art dealers who live on the edge of financial disaster in their sleek Fifth Avenue high-rise. It has been impeccably designed by Mark Wendland with the hanging two-sided Kandinsky (get it? two faces) and a red scrim revealing many other rooms and the skyline.
Like Yasmina Reza's Art, it is also seductive in the way it revolves around visual arts. The centrepiece here, however, is not an all-white canvas but a rotating, double-sided Kandinsky. There are two sides to Guare's story too. He keeps the play spinning on its axis. Trip Cullman's new Broadway revival plays out against the boldly coloured abstract geometric designs of Mark Wendland's set. The sophistication of the setting is complemented by the casting of the supremely stylish stage and TV actor Allison Janney. Her performance is a lesson in perfectly manicured manners. She is well partnered by John Benjamin Hickey, as the urbane Flan. But the revelation is rising actor Corey Hawkins' performance as the interloper Paul. He brings an innocence to character that makes his lie feel plausible.
Yes, John Guare's 1990 hit feels dated. Two Upper East Side culture vultures are swindled by an African-American youth pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son and their child's Harvard classmate: In 2017, such a plot would quickly unravel with a few Google clicks and a text to the kids. And yet, while technology nails this period as pre-World Wide Web, it swings both ways. Guare's elegant and elegiac social dramedy actually seems startlingly prophetic in the age of data mining, catfishing and avatars.
Even softened slightly as it is in this production, the play's brutal message to sophisticates, whether at the end of Reagan's era or the start of Trump's, comes through. We still do not know anyone but ourselves - and ourselves not too well, either. The idea that there are "six degrees of separation" between any two people, which in Guare's formulation became a global catchphrase, is not merely a humanistic piety about interconnectedness; it's also a warning. Those six degrees are unbridgeable if you live on an island.
Almost thirty years later, Six Degrees is something of a period piece. Guare illustrates in a roundabout manner how the cellphone and the Internet have thoroughly changed the world we live in, as the plot stands on circumstances that would be instantly resolved with a quick call (or e-mail) and a Google search. Conversely, Guare's jabs at the Broadway musical Cats remain uncomfortably and wickedly current.
The play's most significant painting, a Kandinsky, hangs over all the action-and what does its centrality finally tell us? Perhaps, for one, that this a play about the perversity of worth: of the works of art that Ouisa and Flan are so engaged in dealing with, and-in contrast-of a human life, Paul's, which they show a terrible incomprehension about. Well, it's worth a lot of money, and its deeper significance, as Paul signals to Ouisa, is one of interpretation; the two great knots-material and psychological--of the play on one canvas. In the end, Paul, whatever has happened to him, has the power of that knowledge. Which may not be worth much, but it's something.
That dangerous young man who calls himself Paul Poitier has grown up in the 27 years since he first set foot on a New York stage. All right, perhaps not "grown up," since we're still talking about a narcissistic con artist of adolescent fecklessness and zero self-knowledge. But there's no doubt that he has grown in stature and, in a paradoxical way, truthfulness. This is because Paul Poitier (not his real name) has been embodied with tremulous, searching sensitivity by the screen actor Corey Hawkins in the earthbound revival of John Guare's marvelous "Six Degrees of Separation," which opened on Tuesday night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater, with the estimable Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey as Paul's plump society pigeons.
Despite the vitalizing presence of Allison Janney in director Trip Cullman's elegant revival, "Six Degrees of Separation" lacks the comic bite of the original production. In its time, John Guare's 1990 social satire about New York sophisticates who are duped by a young black con man was an amusing embarrassment for the city's various tribes of arty intelligentsia. (The story was based on a true incident.) Today, with social barriers considerably more fluid, the con seems quaint. Were sophisticated New Yorkers ever that gullible?
Of the large cast, a handful of supporting players -- Cody Costro, as a spoiled Dartmouth kid; Chris Perfetti, as the swindler's Henry Higgins-like instructor in upper class behavior -- make a strong impression. The lead actors, though, all seem off, lacking in substance (Hickey), or mystery (Hawkins), or -- in Janney's case -- unwilling to plumb the depths of anguish that lurk beneath this play's urbane, arch veneer. Save yourself the trouble and rewatch the imperfect but often thrilling 1993 film version instead.