John Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION was a critical and box office hit when it opened at Lincoln Center twenty-seven years ago. The production was a triumph for Stockard Channing who went on to star in the film version alongside Will Smith. The story is still a fascinating one although seeing this revival makes one aware how much has changed in a little over a quarter of a century. As many critics have noted, the internet has changed everything. The imposter would be easily unmasked. Moreover, nowadays many people are internet imposters posting fake versions of themselves.
Into the elegant apartment of an Flan, an art dealer (John Benjamin Hickey), and his beautiful wife Ouisa (Allison Janney), comes Paul (Corey Hawkins), a young Black man who claims to be Sidney Poitier's son. He claims that he has been mugged in Central Park, close to the home of his Harvard friends, so he comes to their parents for help. Of course this young man has never gone to Harvard and is not friends with Flan and Ouisa's children. They discover that he has given this same performance in other elegant apartments. He doesn't steal anything--he only wants to be accepted in the role he has chosen to play. No matter how good the actress is who plays Ouisa, and Allison Janney is very good, the interesting character is Paul who lives out his fantasies of the person he would like to be. Unfortunately, like many people who don't really belong, Paul can easily be erased from the glittering world he has invaded. Paul is also gay, which was more shocking in 1990 than it is now. The suicide of the innocent young man from Utah Paul seduces ("I don't want to be this," he cries before jumping off a roof). seems a relic of another era of gay representation.
There are funny and touching moments in SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION but Trip Cullman's production can not cover up the uncertainties of tone in Guare's script The obnoxious teenage children of the middle-aged characters seem to come out of some awful television sitcom. Some characters are barely drawn at all and Ouisa's change of heart about her marriage at the end seems to come out of left field as does her insinuation that her husband has a crush on Paul. Cullman tries to cover these flaws with speed. The original production, directed by Jerry Zaks, a devotee of the "Faster-Louder" school of direction, did the same thing. Cullman does know to slow down for the serious moments.
The three leads are very good. Allison Janney looks gorgeous in the beautiful outfits she has been given to wear (Clint Ramos designed the costumes). She's charming, funny and obviously feels a kinship to Paul. After all, so much of Ouisa's social life is a performance designed to woo money from rich backers of her husband's art business. John Benjamin Hickey, always a fine actor, makes more of the underwritten character of Flan than other actors I have seen in the role. I first saw SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION in London. There Adrian Lester was charismatic as Paul. He made the audience aware of why these rich people are so drawn to him. It's not only his supposed relationship to Sidney Poitier: it's sheer force of personality. Corey Hawkins is almost too forceful as Paul. The charm isn't there. When he tells Ouisa that he will clean up, it sounds too much like an order. His line, "I like to be looked at" is said so powerfully that it seems creepy. At times it's as if Hawkins is running a vocal yellow highlighter over key speeches--"This one is important"--then speeding over the less important stuff. Hawkins is at his best in the poignant final scenes.
If you have never seen the play, it's worth seeing, particularly if you can pick up a cheap ticket via tdf or the half-price line.