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Six Degrees of Separation

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 


Six Degrees of Separation

Corey Hawkins, Alison Janney, John Benjamin Hickey.  (Photo: Joan Marcus) 

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 

Six Degrees of Separation came about after a newspaper account in 1983 about a wealthy Upper East Side couple conned by a needy grifter. The situation is not funny but John Guare, in this revival of his razor-edged cynical drama at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, again shows his ear for witty dialogue within a blistering undercurrent of loneliness, racial polarization and human separation.  The question arises if the original concept from a 1990 major Broadway hit, holds up over the passage of time.

 Mark Wendland designed the luxurious Kittredge's Manhattan apartment, dominated by a double-sided Kandinsky painting suspended from the ceiling.  Hostess Ouisa Kittredge states that she has read how everyone in the world is separated by only six other people.  But which six people - that's the key to the connection. 

 Ouisa, played by a vibrant Allison Janney and her husband Flan (John Benjamin Hickey), a high-end art dealer, are entertaining an influential business companion (Michael Siberry) when an unexpected visitor appears at the door, bleeding, he says, from a mugging (revealed later to be self-inflicted).  He is a young charming African-American (Corey Hawkins), who says his name is Paul Poitier, a Harvard school friend of the couple's children and incidentally, the son of Sidney Poitier. 

 They invite him in, bandage the superficial wound, invite him to join them for dinner and over the hours, become captivated with the articulate visitor.  He seems to know stories about their children in school and, at one point, promises Ouisa and Flan minor roles in his father's film-in-progress, Cats.  Fascinated, the Kittredges invite him to spend the night in the guest room.

 The next morning, Ouisa finds him in bed with a male hustler.  She is outraged.  They also discover that Sidney Poitier has no son and  find that their socialite friends have had similar experiences with the fascinating, albeit mysterious Paul.  All wish their own offspring were more like him, and when we meet their children, detached, self-absorbed and peevish, we know why.  Yet Paul eventually charms his way back into their good graces.

 This play, of course, is not the game, "Six degrees of Kevin Bacon," which was created after the original play and film.  The theory had been well-researched for over a century.  In Guare's play, he indicates that six degrees are the racial, cultural and economic separations between people - friends, family members even themselves.  Paul, discusses The Catcher in the Rye, illustrating how people fail to examine themselves, become "phonies" and turn to outside influences and a fascination with the rich and famous.  He convinces Ouisa to search her own imagination which causes a rift in the Kittredge marriage.

 With a quick pace, director Trip Cullman (Significant Other) captures the various personalities of Paul (who is based on the real con man, David Hampton), the Kittreges and their wealthy friends and ego-centric children.  A picture is painted of the disturbing contemporary lives of desperate people. 

 Janney (TV's The West Wing), striking and urbane in her costumes by Clint Ramos, has out-and-out funny moments as she views her life and family.  Her husband, played with self-doubt by Hickey (The Normal Heart) joins her as a believable and generous couple.  Yet they are so insecure as to fall for the outrageous come-on by a needy stranger at the door, even one played as engagingly as Corey Hawkins (TV's 24: Legacy). Excellent secondary characters, especially the children, are most compelling.

 Today, Six Degrees of Separation seems dated in our era of fast-checks, the minute-by-minute social media, texting and the melting of social barriers.  To say nothing of the incredulity of these socially active sophisticates, overwhelmed by a stranger's over-the-top stories and the promise of roles as extras in his father's upcoming musical, Cats

 Yet, as our political world proves daily, there are people who will believe even the most preposterous promises by the most outlandish con men.

 Six Degrees of Separation
Barrymore Theatre
243 W. 47th Street, NYC
Previews: Apr. 05, 2017. Opened Apr. 25, 2017. Closing June 16, 2017.
Running time: 90 minutes.  No intermission.
Written:  John Guare
Directed: Trip Cullman
Cast: Corey Hawkins (Paul, Allison Janney (Ouisa), John Benjamin Hickey (Flan), Jim Bracchitta (Policeman), Tony Carlin (Doorman), Michael Countryman (Larkin), James Cusati-Moyer (Hustler), Ned Eisenberg (Dr. Fine), Lisa Emery (Kitty), Peter Mark Kendall (Rick), Cody Kostro (Doug), Sarah Mezzanotte (Elizabeth), Colby Minifie (Tess), Paul O'Brien (Detective), Chris Perfetti (Trent), Ned Riseley (Ben).

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors

May 2017

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