Near the end of Six Degrees of Separation, Allison Janney, portraying the first rich white victim of a young black con man, tells her husband that she doesn’t want to turn the experience into an anecdote, “with no teeth and a punch line you’ll mouth over and over for years to come.” But it was an anecdote that John Guare heard from friends, reportedly at a dinner party, that inspired him to write Six Degrees of Separation in the first place, and his 1990 play, now being revived on Broadway for the first time, in fact feels like the theatrical equivalent of a dinner party anecdote.
It is funny – sometimes very funny — well crafted, coated with a patina of sparkling sophistication, even at times pointed and almost poignant. It’s an enjoyable entertainment. But it does not add up to the significant experience that Allison Janney’s character feels. And, while the play touches on such matters as race and class and the struggle for connection in modern life, it does not offer the profound insights that the playwright evidently intends.
This judgment contrasts with the acclaim that Six Degrees of Separation received when it was first produced. It achieved a place in our culture for having popularized the concept of its title – that each human being on earth can be connected to every other human being through a relationship chain of six or fewer steps.
The play was also given the 1991 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama. But that was a quarter century ago. The new production, still set in the 1980s, feels dated, and not just because of some now-obscure 1980s references. Even the most privileged amongst theatergoers are no longer necessarily drawn to a world on stage that takes privilege as a given — everybody’s assumed point of view — even if that privilege is subtly mocked. On the most practical level, the play is dated because the specific scam is far less likely to happen in the age of Google.
The play is based on the true story of David Hampton, who in the early 1980s posed as the son of the movie star Sidney Poitier to dupe some well-connected Manhattan residents to give him money and invite him as a guest into their homes.
In the play, private art dealer Flanders Kittredge (John Benjamin Hickey) and his wife Ouisa (Janney) both narrate and dramatize the story of their encounter with the teenager they know only as Paul (Corey Hawkins.) They meet Paul when their doorman escorts him, bleeding and disheveled, into their Manhattan home, in the middle of their business/social meeting with a wealthy South African investor. Paul tells the couple that he has just been mugged in Central Park, that he is a student at Harvard where he is friends with their children, and that he has sought the Kittredge’s help because “your children said you were kind.”
In the conversation that ensues, Paul lets drop that he is Sidney Poitier’s son and that Poitier is making a movie in which the Kittredges could appear as extras. The movie he is making, Paul tells them, is an adaptation of the musical Cats. This gets a big laugh from the audience. Cats is used as a punch line over and over throughout the play, almost a dozen times, which is as good a demonstration as any of the play’s anecdotal-level wit. (It’s worth noting that the actual scammer claimed that Poitier was about to film a movie version of Dreamgirls – 20 years before filmmaker Bill Condon did just that.)
The couple insists that Paul dine with them in a fancy restaurant– and he insists instead on cooking for them in their home – and they invite him to stay overnight. They awake to find that he is having sex with a naked hustler (bravely naked James Cusati-Moyer, making his Broadway debut.) They kick Paul out. But that’s not the end of him in their lives.
It soon becomes clear that they are not Paul’s only victims. They all gather to try to figure out what they have in common, and discover that all their children attended the same boarding school.
It is at this point that Six Degrees of Separation comes most to life, with the deployment of the college age offspring as a comic chorus of angry accusation.
The very effort the parents made to communicate with their children – by befriending a classmate – has backfired. One such father-son exchange:
Dr. Fine (Ned Eisenberg): So you accuse me of having no interest in your life, not doing for friends, being a rotten father. Well, you should be very happy….
Doug (Cody Kostro): The son of who? Dad, I never heard of him. Dad, as usual, you are a real cretin. You gave him the keys? You gave a complete stranger, who happens to mention my name, the keys to our house??!!
Just recalling Eisenberg’s hang-dog expression during his son’s rant makes me laugh out loud.
The children are so uniformly obnoxious that this part of the play feels like a satire – not how actual undergraduates behave, but how their parents perceive the ingratitude of youth, and the underlying inability to communicate with them. Is it any wonder that the adults would be so eager to be duped by a young man who is so polite and tells them how much their children secretly like them?
The hilarity of the kids ganging up on their parents partly justifies an 18-member cast for what feels like a spare 90-minute play (its spareness emphasized by a certain sensory deprivation in the set design.) But the upshot (and downside) is that few of the characters are given enough stage time to develop into anything but character types who exist to advance the plot.
To pick one example: Chris Perfetti, who has done elaborate, meticulous work in such Off-Broadway plays as Cloud Nine, here plays a pivotal character named Trent, but gets basically just one scene. Ironically or not, we even have a tough time getting to know the three leads. It is not the fault of the actors, all of whom have firmly established their talent in previous roles. Hawkins is playing a character who is deliberately opaque. Janney and Hickey portray a couple whose privilege and materialism have turned them superficial.
Six Degrees of Separation takes a dark turn, which is meant to deepen the characters and the play. There is also a suggestion of intellectual heft throughout the play through informed allusions to modern art, and a long fascinating analysis of Catcher in the Rye and its deleterious influence on impressionable and destructive young men. I couldn’t resist feeling that these stabs at erudition and emotion and symbolism – everything, in other words, besides the funny bits — were something of a con.
Six Degrees of Separation is on stage at the Ethel Barrymore Theater (243 W. 47th St., between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, New York, NY, 10036) through July 15, 2017.
Tickets and details
Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare. Directed by Trip Cullman. Scenic design by Mark Wendland, costume design by Clint Ramos, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Darron L West, projection design by Lucy MacKinnon, wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Featuring Allison Janney, John Benjamin Hickey, Corey Hawkins, Jim Bracchitta, Tony Carlin, Michael Countryman, James Cusati-Moyer, Ned Eisenberg, Lisa Emery, Keenan Jolliff, Peter Mark Kendall, Cody Kostro, Sarah Mezzanotte, Colby Minifie, Paul O’Brien, Chris Perfetti, Ned Riseley, Michael Siberry. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.