Is it me, or have the follies of rich New Yorkers become less delightfully entertaining than they once were?
To wit: Some of the savor has left the champagne in the Broadway revival of “Six Degrees of Separation,” John Guare’s once-scintillating comedy of manners set just after the waning of the country’s last gilded era, the 1980s. (Or was that the one before last?) The new production, starring Allison Janney and directed by Trip Cullman, has plenty of comic fizz — perhaps a little too much, at times — but the flavor of the wine itself has lost some of its appeal in an era increasingly defined by economic, cultural and even racial disparities. Time can play unhappy tricks on even the finest works of art.
Guare’s play, first seen Off Broadway in 1990 before moving to Broadway and eventually becoming a (rather good) movie, was inspired by real events, news stories of a young black man who scammed his way into the lives of a series of well-to-do white New Yorkers by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier, among other ruses. Guare spun the tale into a witty and ultimately moving story of the great distances that gape between the lives of any two people, and the fragile bridge of imaginative empathy that can bring them together. (The play’s title derives from a then-trendy statistic suggesting that there are only six people needed to connect any one person on the planet to any other.)
Janney, a veteran stage actor before she decamped for an impressive career in Hollywood, acquits herself with glistening aplomb in the central role of the poised Ouisa Kittredge. She embodies with offhand ease the character’s elegance, inquisitive intelligence and subterranean soulfulness. (This is all the more remarkable because the role is indelibly associated with the estimable Stockard Channing, who gave perhaps the best performance of her career as Ouisa, and later re-created it on film.) As her art-dealer husband Flan — for Flanders, as Ouisa is short for Louisa, in the idiotic-nickname-riddled world of white wealth — John Benjamin Hickey is smooth as a silk cravat, imbuing the character with the dashing suavity that enables Flan to sweet-talk the unfathomably rich out of a million or two over dinner.
And as Paul, the young black man whose strange odyssey into the lives of Ouisa, her husband and a handful of other well-heeled white Manhattan dwellers sets the spinning top of the plot in motion, Corey Hawkins gives an equally assured performance. His Paul exudes the charismatic charm that so easily disarms the people whose lives he enters, as he delights them with his, er, eloquence. But Hawkins later reveals a darker, more troubled if still intuitively smart side to the character, when we explore the history of this smooth operator.
The play begins in medias res, as Ouisa and Flan, in bathrobes, gabble forth the strange history of the events that have just taken place at their plush apartment. Addressing the audience as if talking to friends over lunch at La Grenouille, they recount how a dinner with an old South African friend — Michael Siberry’s amiably imperial Geoffrey — turned unexpectedly adventurous. As Flan and Ouisa were preparing to usher Geoffrey to a restaurant, in burst young Paul, claiming to have been mugged and at a loss what to do. He explains his arrival by saying he is a good friend of their children at Harvard, and coyly, almost sheepishly confiding that he’s the son of Sidney Poitier, which naturally gives him a sheen of glamour and respectability that is matched by his good manners.
Paul cooks up a mean pasta, entrances the company with his exegesis on the real meaning of “The Catcher in the Rye” and news of his father’s latest project — directing a movie version of “Cats,” which inspires the play’s richest running joke — before humbly accepting an invitation to stay the night. It is only when Ouisa, awakened in the night, discovers to her shock that Paul has brought into their home a male hustler, that they begin to question his story. Their curiosity is further inflamed when they learn that their good friends, Kitty (Lisa Emery) and Larkin (Michael Countryman), have been similarly hoodwinked. (The sum total of their financial losses, by the way: $75.)
Although all three actors in the central roles expertly navigate the whipping rhythms and erudite wit of the dialogue, Cullman’s production sometimes lets the humor career into something approaching burlesque. The nude romping of the hustler is stretched for easy laughs; I almost expected James Cusati-Moyer, who plays this naked cameo with unbridled gusto, to perform a few cartwheels before scampering offstage. And while the roles of the fuming college-age-and-just-beyond children are robust caricatures of the simultaneously entitled and needy offspring of the wealthy, their explosive tantrums at their parents have been amped up to ear-splitting volume, in shrill contrast to the play’s more subtle and rewarding comic feints.
It’s not primarily the comedy that falters here, however, but the play’s melancholy philosophical underpinnings, as Janney’s Ouisa becomes at first curious, then deeply interested in the mysterious figure of Paul and what their encounter with him has revealed about her insular life. Janney brings all the bemused fascination you could want to Ouisa’s central speech, referencing the title, about the curious confluence of theirs and Paul’s lives, and “how every person is a new door, opening into other worlds.”
And yet the revival doesn’t open up vistas of ideas, or cut to the heart, the way the original production did. This time, I listened to Ouisa’s speech — which I was once so enamored of that I knew it by heart — with skepticism and distance, not wonder, almost forensically examining it to separate comforting fantasy from complicated truth.
When Guare’s comedy was first seen, after all, the term “income inequality” was hardly the talking-head touchstone it has since become. Now, when a character quips that his rich friends’ parents live “hand to mouth, on a higher plateau,” the laughter rather curdles. The plateau of owning a Central Park view apartment and a Kandinsky, and sending two (or maybe three) children to Harvard, as Ouisa and Flan do, is one that few people have any hope of reaching.
True, Ouisa eventually refers to her and Flan’s lives as a “paltry thing,” but it doesn’t look so very paltry to those living any number of plateaus below. True, too, that Paul’s urgent plea for Ouisa to usher him to the police because, as a young black man, he will be treated with contempt if not violence, has a sharp, painful resonance that it did not a quarter century and more ago. But I was also made uncomfortably aware that “Six Degrees” is a play with some 18 characters, and the sole black one, while drawn with sympathy, is nevertheless a pathological criminal.
“Sometimes there are periods where you see death everywhere,” says a character in the play. Sometimes there are periods where you see racial and economic injustice and inequity everywhere. Today many may feel that it would require more than six degrees to connect any given two Americans, let alone the Tierra del Fuegan and the Eskimo that Ouisa refers to. The false intimacies of social media paper over the actual truth. (Access to a rich man’s tweets does not give us influence over or access to the levers of power he operates, not to put too fine a point on it.)
And so Ouisa’s journey of self-revelation — her discovery of a profound, potentially life-changing compassion for and intimacy with Paul — rings hollow in a way it did not before. Guare’s play is a satirical comedy with philosophical underpinnings, but somewhere buried inside it is a tragedy: a rich white woman’s epiphany coming at the cost, perhaps, of the life of a black man. The bridge of empathy Ouisa attempts to construct feels in today’s world like a bridge too far.
“Six Degrees of Separation” opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Tuesday, April 25, 2017.
Creative: Written by John Guare; Directed by Trip Cullman; 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.
Producers: Stuart Thompson, Louise L. Gund, Tim Levy, John Breglio, Scott M. Delman, Tulchin Bartner Productions, Franki De La Vega, Jane Bergère, John Gore, Gregory Holt, The Lowy Salpeter Company and LaRuffa Hysell Group.
Cast: Corey Hawkins, John Benjamin Hickey, Allison Janney, Jim Bracchitta, Tony Carlin, Michael Countryman, James Cusati-Moyer, Ned Eisenberg, Lisa Emery, Keenan Jolliff, Peter Mark Kendall, Cody Kostro, Sarah Mezzanotte, Colby Minifie, Paul O’Brien, Chris Perfetti, Ned Riseley, Michael Siberry.