Review: ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ Sparks a Connection
By Jil Picariello, Theater Editor, April 26, 2017
Oh, that Allison Janney. She can do more with one little finger than most performers can manage with their entire bodies. And that voice. That deep, dry, hilarious, wonderful voice. She’s one of that rare ones who can make you laugh as hard as she can make you cry.
She gets the chance to do both, in the revival of John Guare’s 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Trip Cullman. Janney is one half of the well-to-do, well-intentioned, and very well dressed (kudos to Clint Ramos for the spot-on attire) Ouisa and Flan Kittredge (with those names you don’t even need to see their perfectly appointed Fifth Avenue apartment to know who these people are). Her other half is the sublime John Benjamin Hickey, who also knows his way around a stage (The Normal Heart, The Crucible, Love! Valour! Compassion! ).
Ouisa and art-dealer Flan (those names!) are the couple who get taken in by a smart con artist, posing as a just-mugged son of their children (conveniently away, of course, at Harvard and Groton). Paul, played by Corey Hawkins with simplicity and pathos, is passing himself off as the son of Sidney Poitier, and promises them a role in his father’s upcoming film of the musical Cats (the only lame joke of the evening, I promise).
Clearly, Guare managed to get this in at the last possible moment in technological history. Today, Ouisa and Flan would be furiously texting, calling, and, most of all, Googling, and Paul’s house of cards would quickly come tumbling down. But they can’t reach their kids, they have no way of checking Paul’s story, and they fall victim to an appealing con man, just as the real-life people did in the story on which the play is based. Their numbers included Melanie Griffith, Gary Sinese, Calvin Klein, and Osborn Elliott, then the dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who told the story to Guare and got the whole ball rolling.
But what is Paul looking for? Money, yes. But something more. And he finds it in Ouisa, who wants to figure it out, figure him out, and make a connection to an appealing young man who needs her help. Perhaps she is driven by the guilt of her gilded cage, since economic disparity, such an on-trend topic right now, gaped nearly as widely at the time of the play, even if we noticed it less. Perhaps she is driven by the racial divide, something else we can relate to in our 2017 seats. Or perhaps it is her challenging relationship with her own children. Those children are the production’s major flaws—they are played for whining, selfish, screeching comic effect, and the play suffers for the superficial characterizations.
Whatever her reasons, Ouisa wants to connect, and the statistic she breathtakingly quotes—which was not created by the play but did popularize it—that everyone on the planet is connected by only six other people, is deeply moving. Ouisa sees herself as just as unfinished, just as much of a work in progress, as Paul. And nothing will make her feel more complete, than helping him be more like her. Unfortunately, her fantasy goes unfulfilled. Notice that the title is not “six degrees of connection.” It’s separation that this play is about, and how, so often, those separations are insurmountable.
Six Degrees of Separation at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street. First preview: April 5, 2017, opened April 25, 2017, and runs through July 16,, 2017. Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission. 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 LaPointe. 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, and Michael Siberry.
Cover: Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey in ‘Six Degrees of Separation;’ photo: Joan Marcus.