Six Degrees of Separation

‘SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION’: (left to right) Lisa Emery, Michael Countryman, Allison Janney, Ned Eisenberg & John Benjamin Hickey. Photo: Joan Marcus

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Written by John Guare
Directed by Trip Cullman
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street, (212-239-6200)


By Scott Harrah

Six Degrees of Separation, just nominated for a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play, is a provocative trip back to early 1990s New York City. Despite some elements that make the show “dated,” playwright John Guare’s drama remains relevant because it has volumes to say about class, race and American society. There is plenty to enjoy in this reboot, including some fine performances, but Trip Cullman’s direction is puzzling and dilutes the tone and theme of the story.

In 1990 (when the show was first produced), New York City was far different from today. David Dinkins was mayor, Times Square was full of X-rated movie houses, crime was rampant, AIDS was ravaging the gay community and race relations were at an all-time low. However, there was, like today, the wealthy and those who wanted an entrée into their privileged world. It is in this posh milieu that we meet the Kittredges: Ouisa (Allison Janney) and husband Flan (John Benjamin Hickey). She’s a socially conscious rich woman; he’s a successful art dealer, and they live in a swank Upper East Side apartment overlooking Central Park.

As the play opens, Ouisa and Flan are talking (sometimes right to the audience) while simultaneously entertaining Geoffrey (Michael Siberry), a super-rich friend from South Africa (during the apartheid era). They are trying to sell their friend a Paul Cézanne painting when they are suddenly interrupted. The doorman (Tony Carlin) brings in a young African American man, Paul (Corey Hawkins, Tony nominated for the role). The guy, dressed in preppie attire, is bleeding from a stab wound and says he knows Ouisa and Flan’s children at Harvard.

The plot thickens as Paul claims he’s the son of actor Sidney Poitier and is in New York to meet his father, purportedly filming a Hollywood musical adaptation of Broadway’s Cats (there are numerous jokes about that show). Paul is a charming young man indeed, cooking for them and regaling the Kittredges with tales of his famous father and a long monologue about Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (supposedly from a thesis he has written). The Kittredges are so spellbound by Paul’s intellectual wit and grace that they lend him money and allow him to spend the night in their daughter’s bedroom.

Of course, Paul is nothing he claims to be, as the Kittredges soon learn when they catch him in bed with a male hustler the next morning. We see how Paul also cons friends of the Kittredges (Lisa Emery and Michael Countryman) and a young couple from Utah.  John Guare supposedly based Six Degrees on the real-life story of a con man who worked his way into upscale Manhattan homes claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son.

With many stage shows, suspending disbelief is commonplace for audiences, and one must realize this play is 27 years old in order to make sense of the narrative. Of course, in 2017 a quick Google search would show the Kittredges that Paul could not be Mr. Poitier’s son (in real life, Mr. Poitier, now 90, has six daughters but no son). Mr. Guare’s dialogue remains crisp and on target, even if some of the references to blacks seem outmoded in an America that has seen eight years of President Barack Obama come and go, African American activism and the momentum of Black Lives Matter after countless tragedies involving the police.

Unfortunately, once the truth about Paul is revealed, Mr. Guare’s thoughtful and profound story unravels under Trip Cullman’s misguided direction. As other characters in the show expose Paul’s outrageous con, Mr. Cullman has the cast play parts of the story as farce.  For some reason, Mr. Cullman has the Kittredge children shriek and squawk. Is he trying to send up the absurdities of spoiled rich kids? If so, one doubts that was John Guare’s original intent.

Six Degrees of Separation was a seminal play when it debuted. Ouisa’s famous monologue “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation” still has a Shakespearean grandness to it.  Allison Janney brings a fresh spin to her character, effectively conveying the heartbreaking, “bleeding heart” maternal instinct of Ouisa, but with more of an archness and less of the natural elegance and grit Stockard Channing brought to the part in the 1990 production and 1993 film adaptation, co-starring Will Smith as Paul. John Benjamin Hickey does a fine job as high-strung Flan, and Corey Hawkins has definitely earned his Tony nomination as Paul.

Reviving dramas with key plot elements that make little sense in the 21st century is tricky business indeed, but can work with the right cast and director. However, this is a period piece and the “dated” elements are not the problem here.  The cast is outstanding here, but director Trip Cullman leaves out the necessary shading and nuance to make this Six Degrees of Separation work by having the actors perform dramatic parts of the show for laughs. Although the show has many funny lines, ultimately Six Degrees should be presented as a tragedy, and Mr. Cullman just misses the mark in all the wrong places. Regardless, John Guare’s slice of early 1990s New York life remains a modern classic.


Edited by Scott Harrah
Published May 3, 2017
Reviewed at press performance on May 2, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation

‘SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION’: Allison Janney & Corey Hawkins. Photo: Joan Marcus

Six Degrees of Separation

‘SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION’: Allison Janney & John Benjamin Hickey. Photo: Joan Marcus

Six Degrees

‘SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION’: (left to right) Corey Hawkins, John Benjamin Hickey, Allison Janney & Michael Siberry. Photo: Joan Marcus

‘SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION’: Allison Janney. Photo: Joan Marcus

‘SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION’: John Benjamin Hickey. Photo: Joan Marcus

‘SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION’: Corey Hawkins. Photo: Joan Marcus

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