By Samuel L. Leiter
“There are two sides to every story,” says a character in John Guare’s prize-winning dramedy, Six Degrees of Separation, now getting its first Broadway revival since its 1990 Lincoln Center premiere (first at the Newhouse, then at the Beaumont). There are also two sides—one standing for chaos, one for control—to the Kandinsky painting slowly rotating as it hangs over the red-swathed, sparingly furnished apartment (designed by Mark Wendland and exquisitely lit by Ben Stanton), in which most of the play transpires. And there are certainly two sides, if not more, to this play, based on an actual rip-off that happened to friends of the playwright in 1983, and to a number of other suckers, some notables among them.
Have you ever been conned by someone with a reasonably respectable appearance asking you for assistance because, let’s say, they’ve run out of gas and desperately need a few dollars to get home? If so, think about the moxie it would take to stab yourself enough to bloody your shirt before barging into the Fifth Avenue aerie of a wealthy couple, claiming to have been mugged in Central Park, to be the Harvard friend of their children, and, best of all, to be the son of Sidney Poitier, who’s in town to direct, of all things, a movie version of Cats.
That, indeed, is what “Paul Poitier” (Corey Hawkins), as he calls himself, does when he breathlessly enters the digs of art dealer Flan Kittredge (John Benjamin Hickey), and his chic wife, Ouisa (Allison Janney), while they’re discussing the sale of a Cézanne with a rich South African businessman named Geoffrey (Tony Carlin).
The name-dropping Paul, who’s been studying up on the Kittredge family (and others) with a gay lover (Chris Perfetti), and whose talents include gourmet cooking, not only gains everyone’s sympathy (Geoffrey gets inspired to create an African-American film festival at home), he’s even given the Kittredge’s son’s bedroom to sleep in. But when Paul is discovered having sex there with a hustler (James Cusati-Moyer), his fast-talking skills kick into high gear.
Paul’s trickery isn’t finished, though, and he soon pulls off another outlandish ploy with Rick (Peter Mark Kendall) and Elizabeth (Sarah Mezzanotte), an innocent young couple from Utah he meets in Central Park. This one ends up tragically. Despite being fully informed of Paul’s transgressions, Ouisa reaches out to make that true connection with him that’s been missing from her life. It’s too late, however, and all she has left is what she least wanted, an anecdote to endlessly recall.
Trip Cullman’s direction charges the play with the high-energy antics and rapid pace of drawing room farce, much of it too broad for this viewer’s tastes; carefully timed physical business is abundant, like a madcap chase involving the hustler, whose total nudity is a bad choice in search of a cheap laugh. But, as per the script, the tone changes awkwardly with the Rick and Elizabeth sequence, making us unsure about when and when not to laugh.
Guare has a great time satirizing the fatuousness and guilt of the upper-class, liberal-leaning, white couple (and their friends) who fall for this well-dressed, seemingly highly educated, young black man’s carefully rehearsed palaver. Part of the fun comes from their excitement about the possibility of being in Cats, a show biz reference Guare squeezes for the kind of kneejerk reaction too many playwrights get from mentioning Queens or New Jersey.
Six Degrees of Separation takes its name from a theory recalled by Ouisa as she ponders how Paul found her and Flan; thanks to the play (and its film version), this notion, which has infiltrated everyone’s consciousness (as Kevin Bacon can attest), insists we’re all separated from even the most remote individuals, like a “Tiera del Fuegan,” by a chain of only six people; of course, Ouisa notes, “you need to find the right people to make the connection.”
Leading the large, highly capable ensemble is the always excellent Allison Janney. Wearing a stylishly coiffed blond wig, with her tall, slender figure dressed to elegant perfection by Clint Ramos, she brings her star radiance to Ouisa, making her both wonderfully funny and human enough for us to accept the woman’s desperate need to believe in Paul. Hickey is generally amusing as the eager art dealer, his dubious dealings not that far removed, morally, from Paul’s. And Hawkins is quite plausible as the charming but mentally troubled Paul, whose imposture could likely scam an unsuspecting audience into buying his b.s.
David Hampton, on whom Paul is based, died at 39 of AIDS in 2003. Six Degrees captures his essence but it’s not a biodrama. However, a play about his life, including his litigious response to Guare’s play, might provide another side of the story.
Six Degrees of Separation
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th St., NYC
Through July 16
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).