By Donna Herman
You may not have seen the original, but you’ve played the game. Now’s your chance to see where it all started. John Guare didn’t make up the concept but his 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, put the phrase on everyone’s lips and made Kevin Bacon a household name. Not that Bacon had anything to do with the play, mind you. The stunning revival now playing at the Barrymore Theater through July 16th is an uncomfortably funny reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Ripped from the headlines of the day, it’s the story of a young con man, Paul (Corey Hawkins), who scams his way into the lives of wealthy New Yorkers Ouisa (Allison Janney) and Flan (John Benjamin Hickey) by claiming to know their children who are away at Harvard. Ouisa and Flan Kittridge – short for Louisa and Flanders (why do WASPS have such ridiculous nicknames?) narrate the story by breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. It’s as if they can’t internalize their experience until they share it with someone. Hmmm….I wonder if John Guare was an early investor in Facebook? The Kittridge’s are entertaining an even wealthier South African friend Geoffrey (Michael Siberry), whom they are hoping will invest two million dollars into their purchase of a Cezanne for resale. They are private art dealers and are two million short for this deal.
Their doorman (Tony Carlin) shows up supporting a bloodied Paul, who has supposedly been mugged and stabbed and all his possessions taken. Including the only copy of his PhD thesis which was in his briefcase. Dressed in a respectable navy blazer and khakis, dropping their son and daughter’s names, he says he’s supposed to meet his father, who is flying in from LA the next morning to direct a movie, at “the Sherry.” He doesn’t want to be a bother but he was in Central Park when he got mugged, and he saw their building, and their children had spoken so highly of them he just came in. They clean him up, give him a shirt of their son’s, and when he finally, finally, divulges that his father is Sidney Poitier, resistance is futile.
Paul winds up cooking an incredible meal for them, and regaling them with an articulate, intelligent and clearly over-their-heads explanation of his thesis on “Catcher in the Rye” as a manifesto for murder. He dazzles them, and their guest Geoffrey who promises them the two million they need. They insist he sleep over and meet his father in the morning, and he promises them walk-on roles in the movie of “Cats” his father is directing. They give him $50 for walking around money and say goodnight. In the middle of the night, Ouisa gets up and discovers that he has gone out and picked up a male hustler (James Cusati-Moyer) and brought him back to their apartment. A keystone cops chase with the naked hustler through their apartment ensues, and Ouisa and Flan are shocked and betrayed. They throw Paul and the hustler out and reflect with horror that they might have been killed.
They don’t have any idea that Paul isn’t who he says he is until their friends Kitty (Lisa Emery) and Larkin (Michael Countryman) come over the next evening and pre-empt them telling their story by saying they have a story to tell first. And sure enough, they too have met Sidney Poitier’s son Paul, who said he knew their son. And what did Paul get from them? A whopping $25. They embark on a hunt to find out the truth about who Paul is and whether or not he is Sidney Poitier’s son. This is before the internet mind you, and requires a trip to The Strand Bookstore for a copy of Poitier’s out-of-print autobiography. Where they find out that Poitier has four daughters and no sons. So who is Paul and how did he know so much about them?
The answer lies with their children and they set out to find out what’s going on. Much of the play’s humor is in the interactions between the various sets of parents and their children. Clearly, relations between teenagers and parents haven’t changed significantly in 27 years. Although we do eventually learn the source of the information used in Paul’s cons, we never learn much about Paul’s background or definitively what becomes of him.
What we do learn is that the experience with Paul has shaken Ouisa to her core. Her sense of who she is in relation to everyone else in the world has changed, and she is unwilling to let go of that understanding. But she doesn’t really have the tools to break out of her insular world, and she’s surrounded by people who don’t see what she sees. That she is connected personally to everyone if she only knew the right pathway, and that connection for her is a responsibility. Allison Janney gives a mesmerizing performance as Ouisa. She’s sharp and fast and funny, but brimming with intelligence and humanity. Her transformation is subtle and slow, but all the more moving for its thoughtfulness. Welcome back to the stage, Ms. Janney.
Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare, Directed by Trip Cullman
WITH: Allison Janney (Ouisa); John Benjamin Hickey (Flan); Michael Siberry (Geoffrey); Corey Hawkins (Paul); Tony Carlin (Doorman); James Cusati-Moyer (Hustler); Lisa Emery (Kitty); Michael Countryman (Larkin); Paul O’Brien (Detective); Colby Minife (Tess); Keenan Joliff (Woody); Ned Riseley (Ben); Ned Eisenberg (Dr. Fine); Cody Kostro (Doug); Jim Bracchitta (Policeman); Chris Perfetti (Trent); Peter Mark Kendall (Rick); Sarah Mezzanotte (Elizabeth).
Scenic Design by Mark Wendland; Costume Design by Clint Ramos; Lighting Design by Ben Stanton; Sound Design by Darron L. West; Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon; Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe; Casting Director, Daniel Swee; Assistnat Director, Zi Alikhan; Production Stage Manager, Jill Cordle; Stage Manager, Morgan R. Holbrook; Production Management, Aurora Productions; General Management, David Turner; Producer, Stuart Thompson; Producer, Louise L. Gund; Producer, Tim Levy; Producer John Breglio. The Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street. For tickets visit the box Office Monday – Saturday: 10am – 8pm; Sunday