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Six Degrees of Separation

John Guare is back on Broadway with a revival of one of his plays, powered by nervous energy and fine-tuned performances.

Corey Hawkins, Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey in a scene from “Six Degrees of Separation” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, the rapier sharp x-ray of New York’s upper class was first presented in 1990 at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater featuring a career-peak performance by Stockard Channing as the socially connected wife of a self-absorbed art dealer.

Along with most of their friends they are conned by a young, handsome black man (Courtney B. Vance in the original) who claimed to be Sidney Poitier’s son.  So charming and informed was “Paul Poitier” that his infiltration of several families’ lives resulted in permanent changes, disarrangements of their psyches and even a suicide.

Six Degrees is back again in a new production powered by nervous energy and strong performances and directed by Trip Cullman.  It stars a charismatic, warm and daffy Allison Janney in the part of Ouisa Kittredge, paired with the calmly giddy John Benjamin Hickey as her art dealer hubby, Flan.

Their posh Fifth Avenue apartment and their orderly lives are invaded by a bleeding Paul (handsome Corey Hawkins who skillfully wears Paul’s newly acquired façade of knowledge which hides his many secrets and desires).

Lisa Emery, Ned Eisenberg, Cody Kostro, Keenan Jolliff, John Benjamin Hickey, Allison Janney, Ned Riseley, Colby Minifie and Michael Countryman in a scene from “Six Degrees of Separation” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

When interrupted by Paul, the Kittredges are nervously entertaining a client, a South African, Geoffrey (a posh Michael Siberry whose accent and manner are dead on) hoping he will invest in an art deal.  Paul’s poise—not to mention his skill in the kitchen—persuade them to trust him, even to the point of giving him cash (which he uses in a shockingly amusing way).

As it turns out, this ersatz Poitier son has done this several times to other families who are inadvertently united by their dealings with this faker.  With his Scheherazade-like tales, not to mention the allure of show business—offering all of them roles in the film of Cats that his “father” Sidney will be directing—Paul discombobulates these orderly, upper crust  lives in which the only surprises are what vile things their spoiled children will say about them.  And he selfishly destroys a hopeful young couple he meets in Central Park.

Guare’s command of quicksilver storytelling and his feel for these characters keep Six Degrees from coming across as a period piece.  Only the lack of mobile technology—which would have shut down the plot after five minutes of Googling—dates it.  Even so, his ability to make fun of their idiosyncrasies—where they eat, shop, go to school, etc.—places this play on a higher level than just a high class drawing-room comedy.

Certainly the creative team has strived to keep it modern, but ageless.  Mark Wendland’s set, a giant room that slides off to the side barely indicated the level at which the Kittredges live but manage to create a chronologically indeterminate place.  Clint Ramos’ costumes, except for one awful black formal gown for Ms. Janney, are spot on perfect.  Ben Stanton’s lighting makes the alternation between the characters’ interactions with each other and with the audience crystal clear, even when they alternate at breakneck speed.

Lisa Emery, Michael Countryman, Allison Janney, Ned Eisenberg and John Benjamin Hickey in a scene from “Six Degrees of Separation” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

All the acting is sharp, from the upper-crusters taken in by Paul (Lisa Emery, Michael Countryman and Ned Eisenberg) to their kids (Colby Minifie, Keenan Jolliff, Ned Riseley, and Cody Kostro), Chris Perfetti as Trent who, sexually intoxicated by Paul, fills him in on the ways and means of all the people he will eventually swindle, and finally, to the young lovers (Peter Mark Kendall and Sarah Mezzanotte) whose fate reveals just how psychologically damaging Paul can be.

Although Cullman’s direction is more choppy in its rhythms than the original, the sharpness of its observations and full-bodied acting make it clear that Six Degrees of Separation is one fine contemporary play which still has a great deal to say.

Six Degrees of Separation (through July 16, 2017)

Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.Telecharge.com

For more information, visit http://www.SixDegreesBroadway.com

Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (180 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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