John Guare’s best play is still smart, literate, and relevant. After all, the rich have gotten even richer since the early 1990s, and class envy is more widespread. Led by the terrific Allison Janney, the strong cast makes Six Degrees briskly entertaining yet thoughtful, and even profound at times.
Janney plays Ouisa Kittredge, a well-to-do Upper East Sider married to an art-dealer, Flan (John Benjamin Hickey). He is trying to buy a Cezanne and hopes to raise $2 million from a wealthy South African friend, Geoffrey (Michael Siberry). The couple are wining and dining Geoffrey—without making it obvious that they desperately need his money to close the deal—when an extremely unlikely visitor arrives. Paul (Corey Hawkins), a young black man who has been mugged and stabbed in Central Park, is let in by the doorman (Tony Carlin).
The newcomer turns out to be likable and wordly. He is a college classmate of the Kittredges’ children and knows all about them, as well as Ouisa and Flan. His father, apparently, is the legendary actor Sidney Poitier, who is to arrive in New York the next day. After Flan asks what Poitier is really like, Ouisa says, “Let’s not be star-fuckers.”
Paul says his father is coming to town to work on a movie version of the musical Cats. We learn later that Ouisa hated the musical. Nonetheless, she and Flan can’t wait to get bit parts in it. Paul charms the trio further by cooking them a delicious dinner using leftovers. After gaining their trust, Paul is invited to spend the night. In the morning, Flan catches Paul with a male hustler (James Cusati-Moyer) and orders them to leave.
Nonetheless, Flan and Ouisa are genuinely concerned for Paul. Ouisa is touched that Paul wants to be like them and thinks they made a real connection. In a wonderful speech near the end of the play, Ouisa talks about how she doesn’t want to turn every significant experience into an anecdote to be trotted out at cocktail parties.
Janney does a beautiful job with the speech. It turns out, though, that Paul is a very smart conman. He has used his charms and inside information to weasel his way into the homes of other wealthy New Yorkers.
As the play’s famous title implies, even the most privileged and most impoverished among us aren’t really as distant from each other as we think. Through friends and acquaintances, we’re just a few connections apart from anyone else on the planet. The concept isn’t as novel as it was in 1990. But Guare’s characters express the idea so elegantly that the class-conscious story is just as powerful now.
Janney is very comfortable in the role originated by Stockard Channing. She and Hickey handle the frequent asides to the audience gracefully. All the characters engage in storytelling—to each other and to the audience—and the actors make the stories engaging.
There are frequent mentions of art (Kandinsky, for example) and literature (The Catcher in the Rye), but the play never feels like a lecture. Janney has noted that she and Hickey are longtime friends, which has helped make their on-stage relationship seem genuine. Hickey manages to be both suavely assured and frightened of failure.
Best of all is Hawkins, who is sensational in the tricky role of Paul. In the early scenes, he’s a smooth, fast-talking charmer. We’re hardly surprised that the Kittredges fall for his lies and let him stay the night. In later scenes, he’s less polished and more vulnerable. Hawkins, who has done everything from the movie Straight Outta Compton to Romeo and Juliet on Broadway, is clearly a young actor to watch. His Tony nomination for this performance is well deserved.
Trip Cullman’s direction is generally first-rate. But he makes the several college-age characters—the Kittredges’ and the other spoiled kids who came into contact with Paul—too one-dimensional and unlikable. I don’t remember them being so annoying in the 1990 production, which was directed by Jerry Zaks and starred John Cunningham and Courtney B. Vance alongside Channing.
Six Degrees can be appreciated from different points of view—just like the two-sided Kandinsky that hangs in the Kittredges’ living room. Like a multimillion-dollar painting, Guare’s artful 90-minute play is complex, many-sided, rich in meaning, and open to multiple interpretations. This beautifully realized revival is well worth seeing before it closes on July 16.
Six Degrees of Separation is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Purchase tickets here.