When Six Degrees of Separation opened off-Broadway, and then on, late in 1990, we thought the genius of John Guare’s excoriating comedy lay in the perfect way it captured a moment in a particular subset of American culture. We were wrong.
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.
We’re in the artily appointed Upper East Side home of Flanders and Louisa Kittredge, Flan and Ouisa for short. The living room is dominated by a rare Kandinsky work painted on both sides of the canvas, dark and abstract on one side, bright and abstract on the other. Flan (Hickey) and Ouisa (Janney) turn it around according to their mood. At opening, the revolving work has stopped with the threatening side facing us. The couple is scrabbling around in the aftermath of what appears to have been a burglary, when they turn to the audience and begin telling the story of what happened the night before:
They had been entertaining Geoffrey (Michael Siberry), an even wealthier friend visiting from South Africa who they hope will invest $2 million in a Cezanne painting they wish to buy for resale at a huge profit. Flan is a high-risk operator on the black market, where masterpieces are flipped for fortunes without the nosy interference of legitimate dealers, tax collectors, museums. Everything among the single-malts is la-la white and wonderful: “God! The restaurants!” Geoffrey marvels. “New York has become the Florence of the sixteenth century. Genius on every corner!”
Suddenly the doorman appears, holding up a preppily dressed young black man, disheveled and bleeding from a stomach wound. Paul (Hawkins) was mugged, he says, and found himself outside the Fifth Avenue apartment home of his Harvard chums, Flan and Ouisa’s kids. He’s embarrassed, but his father won’t be checking into “the Sherry” down the street till the next morning. Flan, Ouisa and Geoffrey are duly impressed with Paul’s erudition, his cooking skills, his intimate knowledge of the children and, best of all, his secret – please don’t tell anyone! – that his father, Sidney Poitier, is directing the film version of Cats and he’s certain there are cameos in store for all of them.
Reference The Lost Man, check. Reference the abomination of apartheid, check. Reference Catcher in the Rye and Mark David Chapman, check. Needless to say, Paul is invited to spend the night. Even after Ouisa and Flan discover Paul the next morning in flagrante with a male hustler, they continue to believe him, because, you know, they’re good people. Even after friends admit they’ve been taken in by the same scam, right down to Cats. They understand. Plus, as he was leaving, Geoffrey signed on for the $2 mill plus overrun. Made in the shade!
Gullibility isn’t the point, as Guare – our great dramatic poet of both the theater and film (House of Blue Leaves, Atlantic City) – and his directors (Jerry Zaks, the original Lincoln Center Theater productions, and Trip Cullman, here) drive home with subtle, rhythmic productions and superb casting. Mark Wendland’s set suggests refined taste on a careful budget, while Ben Stanton’s lighting aptly creates pools of isolation.
Hickey brings a powerful sense of irony to Flan that reminded me of Jack Lemmon at his best, a man demanding to be taken seriously in spite of overwhelming evidence that he’s a tricked-up street fighter certain the next bout will be his undoing. Hawkins is brilliant, delivering his eloquent, elaborate soliloquies with just enough body language to signify (to everyone but those on the stage) that Paul is not to the manner born.
And that’s an issue in this play that is, at its heart, about Ouisa Kittredge, stranded in the zeitgeist and yearning for meaning – even if that calls for giving herself over to the fabrications of a gifted con artist. Janney, elegantly sheathed in Clint Ramos’ form-fitting outfits, is utter conviction in conveying the transformation Paul has unwittingly, unexpectedly brought about in her:
“I will not turn him into an anecdote,” Ouisa tells us near the end, nearly overcome by a mix of sorrow and madness. “How do we fit what happened to us into life without turning it into an anecdote with no teeth and a punch line you’ll mouth over and over in years to come. ‘Tell the story about the imposter who came into our lives.’ ‘That reminds me of the time this boy…’ And we become these human juke boxes spilling out these anecdotes. But it was an experience. How do we keep the experience?”
Keeping the experience, holding on to our stories, is the theme that lifts Six Degrees of Separation from of-the-moment to a kind of timelessness. It’s only gained in power over the last quarter-century.