It began in 1983, with a series of short articles in the New York Times that recounted a Dominick Dunne-ish, improbable-but-true, society story—a young man, claiming to be a Harvard student and the son of film star Sidney Poitier, had inveigled several prominent Manhattan families. Soon after, the matter was resolved legally, and might well have been forgotten, having been enjoyed by Times readers mostly for a moment of what-could-they-have-been-thinking? schadenfreude.
Except that playwright John Guare, who had a connection to the story, saw in it something larger. A few years later, he wrote Six Degrees of Separation, wherein a fictionalized married couple—art dealer Flan Kittredge and his wife, Ouisa—take in a young man named Paul, who arrives, wounded, at their Fifth Avenue apartment. Paul tells the Kittredges that he was mugged; having nowhere else to go, he sought them out because their children (who are his friends at Harvard) have said nice things about them. Flan and Ouisa, flattered, take him in.
Six Degrees, which had its premiere at Lincoln Center in 1990, is one of the great plays of its moment—hell, of any moment. But Guare understood the story to say something disquieting and profound about that particular time. And that could be a problem.
Much as I love Six Degrees, which I saw in its original production, I wondered how it would hold up. Would we still laugh at jokes about Cats? Would a key plot-point, hinging on an affluent white couple’s believing a young black man’s credulity-straining story, hold up today, when a simple internet search could disprove it in an instant? Speaking of black-and-white, would the broader racial politics now seem hopelessly naïve or dated?
Happily, Guare’s script is unscathed by the vagaries of time: it’s as wonderful—and as fresh—as ever. It deserves better than director Trip Cullman’s glossy, shallow revival.
In Cullman’s hands, within the first few minutes, all three central characters reveal their least appealing traits. Flan (played by John Benjamin Hickey) is cute and flirty, but mostly rapacious. Paul (Corey Hawkins) is appealing, but you’ll think he’s pulling a scam from the get-go.
As for Ouisa, meant to be the play’s heart and social conscience, Allison Janney is funny, but she’s a tough cookie. She’s a fine actress, with the unenviable task of stepping into a role made famous through Stockard Channing’s legendary performance. Janney does well by the sardonic wit, but here, she has little of Channing’s luminous charm or emotional generosity.
In emphasizing the crass side of Six Degrees, Cullman underscores the play as a Reaganite parable about two con artists—Paul and Flan. One is smoothly successful, a rich man preying on even richer ones; the other is hardly more than a boy, struggling to find his way into the world of privilege.
Do I need to tell you who will come out on top? I doubt it. If you lived through the economic bubble of the 1980s, likely you’ll have queasy memories of the tightrope: those who managed to navigate it were rewarded; those who fell off never recovered. Guare enlivens this narrative with tremendous nuance and flair, finding poignant resonance in references to AIDS, hustling, and (of all things) The Catcher in the Rye.
On this level, Cullman’s Six Degrees scores some points, even though I would have preferred a less shrill approach. (Watch the actors who play the younger generation—several of these performances could easily step straight into Bye, Bye, Birdie, though Peter Mark Kendall’s touchingly understated work may be the best thing about the show.)
But Six Degrees is more than that. It explores human connections—the ones we can’t forge, no matter how we try; but even more, the fragile, unexpected ones that give our lives meaning. Ouisa’s hunger for genuine interaction is why we love her, even knowing her flaws. (Part of why it’s not implausible that Ouisa fails to verify Paul’s story is precisely because she doesn’t want to know—she needs a reason to take him in, rather than to turn him away.)
Page after page of Guare’s script is filled with beautiful, lyrical ruminations on our passions and foibles. Seen here, played at high speed and with sitcom-y aggressiveness, they barely register.
In the end, scenic designer Mark Wendland’s striking but distractingly abstract set furnishes a good metaphor for the whole production. A central image in Six Degrees is a double-sided Kandinsky painting, which is the Kitteredge’s pride-and-joy—they refer to it a number of times, particularly the duality of chaos-and-control it symbolizes, which is also a motif in Guare’s script.
At the Barrymore Theatre, amid a strange, red jumble of furniture and chandeliers, that Kandinsky hangs high above the stage, out of reach, spinning aimlessly.
Six Degrees of Separation plays at the Barrymore Theatre in New York, booking through July 16. For more information, visit the production website.