On & Off Broadway

‘Six Degrees of Separation’

A Review by Elyse Trevers

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The theory is that everyone is connected to everyone else through a maximum of six people. I know someone who knows someone who knows Barack Obama or Emmanuel Macon, the President-elect of France, or a peasant farmer in Peru. That’s the premise put forth in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation now in an enticing revival at the Barrymore Theater. The play reminds us that we are all a bit star-struck and will ignore any prejudices if connected to celebrity.

Having seen the original 1990 production and the film version a few years later, I had remembered the basic ideas of the show and the stars (Stockard Channing, John Cunningham) but little else. I found myself watching it as if for the first time and even wondering if this was a newer, fresher version. My colleague, who had also seen it before, assured me it wasn’t and that even the nudity was in the original. This revival is a reminder of just what a fine play it is and how creatively it is staged.

An African-American man shows up at the door of a wealthy Upper East Side couple, Ouisa (Allison Janney) and Flan Kittredge (John Benjamin Hickey). He claims to have been mugged in Central Park and says that he knows their children from Harvard. Most impressive to the couple is his claim that he’s the son of the legendary actor and director Sidney Poitier. (Written in the days before cell phones and the Internet, the couple can’t verify his claims and instead they must rely upon his persona and the information he provides.) They take him in for the evening, and he cooks them dinner and turns on the charm. They are entranced by him and, despite their sophistication, are even tempted by his promise to cast them as extras in his father’s movie version of Cats. Paul is sophisticated, intelligent and worldly. They give him money and then wake up to find him with a nude male prostitute. Later, they will find they were not the only ones to have been duped as they, and we, are introduced to an interconnected web of characters.

Parts of Six Degrees seem somewhat dated. Danger no longer lurks around every corner of New York, the AIDS epidemic is under control, and apartheid in South Africa long ago met its demise. And yet, the issue of race continues to loom over our society, our obsession with celebrities has only grown and, for good measure, Cats is playing in a cheerful revival just down the street.

The revelation of this production is Corey Hawkins in the role of Paul Poitier. He makes his entrance and instantly raises the energy on stage, his voice is more confident than the others and he convincingly charms everyone – an ideal con artist. Hickey and Janney both have their moments, yet both come across at times like lightweights when up against Mr. Hawkins. At first glance, that would appear to be a weakness of this production. However, perhaps it is fitting and all the more convincing that a wealthy and powerful couple could be naïve enough to be charmed by a conman.

Even people who aren’t familiar with the actual drama will find themselves referring to the title. Only six people separate us? Or is it that they connect us to one another? If so, shouldn’t our connectedness to one another compel us to get along better?