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A CurtainUp Review
Six Degrees Of Separation

I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The President of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that A) tremendously comforting that we're so close and B) like Chinese water torture that we're so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. It's not just big names. lt's anyone. A native in a rain forest. A Tierra del Fuegan. An Eskimo. I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It's a profound thought. How Paul found us. How to find the man whose son he pretends to be. Or perhaps is his son, although I doubt it. How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people— Ouisa
Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins (photo: Joan Marcus)
John Guare didn't invent that theory about there being only six degrees of separation between us and everyone else. But it was his 1990 play and subsequent movie that made its title, Six Degrees of Separation, part of our daily vocabulary. Guare also didn't invent the the idea that a young black outsider could insinuate himself into the lives of well-heeled, well-known New Yorkers by laying claim to several of those possible 6-degree connections. His inspiration was a real life con man named David Hampton.

What Mr. Guare did invent was his own group of upper crust New Yorkers and a real Hampton counterpart named Paul. Using his typical funny to sad juggling style he cleverly dramatized the empty values of the Reagan era's one-percenters who were suckered into believing that Paul was a student, at Harvard and knew their children. He also claimed to be the son of film star Sidney Poitier and the victim of muggers who had stolen his money and Harvard term paper (slyly titled "Injustices in the Criminal Justice System").

No doubt David Hampton's most famous scheme (he continued his con games until his death in 2013) has been outdone by the likes of Bernard Madoff, whose many victims suffered devastating financial losses— and most recently by a real estate billionaire and reality show host who conned workers into electing him by promising to bring back well-paying jobs that are as systemically obsolete as the horse and buggy. For Hampton's marks the damage was mainly to their egos. The only exception is Ouisa Kitteredge (that dropped "L" Guare's sly nod to the Kittredge pretentious name dropping life style). Ouisa's connection to Paul actually leaves her more introspective with a painful sense of helplessness about connecting her world and Paul's — not to mention a probable unhealable wound to her marriage.

Guare's funny but ultimately sad psychodrama, its stylish structure and multi-faceted script peppered with trendy cultural references, made it a defining dramatic slice of New York life during a particular era. Yet, this theatrical salad tossed together with assorted social issues and attitudes remains a tasty send-up of people obsessed with the pursuit of money, infatuated with celebrity, and more attuned to a needy stranger than their own children.

At the time Six Degrees. . . opened it could also be seen as a turned-on-its-head parody of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the movie starring Sidney Poitier as a young doctor's first meeting with his white future in-laws. However, what set Guare's play apart from literary send-ups of that era, like Tom Wolfe's 1987 best selling novel Bonfire of the Vanities, was his clever use of the real hoax to explore that statistical theory about our being linked to anybody, anywhere through a chain of just six people. The play's success was helped by the fact that Guare didn't let style obliterate substance.

The busy director Trip Cullman (he's already helmed two other plays this season, The Profane and Signifcant Other) has satisfyingly teased Guare's agile shift of tone an style into a still timely and entertaining whole. With the economics of putting on a play favoring small casts, often even for musicals, seeing a straight play with eighteen actors on stage is the one deliciously untimely aspect of Cullman's production. Fortunately, he's assembled a fine team of actors for this generously sized cast.

While the pivotal role of Ouisa was memorably created by Stockard Channing, Allison Janney also lets us see Ouisa evolve from brittle, superficial striver to someone who is shaken and changed by what she learns about herself, her children, and her marriage as a result of briefly connecting this charismatic but unstable stranger. She has us wishing with her that she could have responded more positively to his poignant plea for help. She also looks wonderful in Clint Ramos's costumes.

The story line proceeds along its funny-sad path exactly as Guare told it originally. Paul (Corey Hawkins) maneuvers his entry into the Kittredges' lives as well as those of some of their friends by claiming to know their children and pretending he's been mugged and stabbed in Central Park. Bloodied and minus his wallet, he has nowhere to go until his father (the much mentioned but never seen Poitier) arrives at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel. Clearly the Kittredges are not going to send him back to the park until that arrival.

Unlike Shakespeare's plays which lend themselves to bringing the story into the present, Guare's play has to remain in its pre-internet setting. While Ouisa and Flan (John Benjamin Hickey) might still be smitten with Paul. But once they realize that they've been duped by Paul's charm and dissembling, a present day setting would have caused the plot to collapse with a quick Google search or text to one of their children. Nor would Paul have needed their gay son to arm him with details that would help bamboozle them into welcoming him into their home and giving him money.

Cullman steers the forward and backward action packed single act with a steady hand. The concurrent audience addressing mnologues and dialogue, the shifts from present to past and real to dream interplay are effectively punctuated by Ben Stanton's lighting.

Mark Wendland's set imbues the Kittredge living room where all the action takes place with a slick, thoroughly modern feel. Wendland has also built on the metaphoric 2-sided Kadinski painting hanging from the ceiling that overhangs the room with a back wall that looks like one of Mark Rothko's red canvases. That wall's actually being a scrim allows us glimpses of the rest of the art-filled apartment.

The rest of the ensemble expertly mines Guare's witty text. Michael Siberry, an actor who can always be counted on to do right by his characters, is on hand to also be seduced by Paul. His Geoffrey is a rich South African who the Kittredges were about about to take out to dinner in hopes of closing a deal that would have him ante up the funds needed for buying and profitably re-selling a Cezanne painting. The dinner which ends up being dished up by Paul along with his entertaining fabrications not only helps to seal the Cezanne deal but has Geoffrey planning a Black American Film Festival in still Apartheid ruled South Africa. John Benjamn Hickey nicely brings out the playwright's satiric point-counter-point between Flan Kittredge's dealings with rich art collectors and the small-time con-man's more modest schemes.

As was the case in Katori Hall's Hurt Village, Corey Hawkins is once again the play's most complex character. His performance is at its best when he holds forth with a brilliant analysis of The Catcher in the Rye. His funniest moments come when he taps into the Kittredges' hunger for celebrity as well as riches by offering to help them become extras in a movie of Cats that his father is directing. That musical's once again being on Broadway is a nice unanticipated bow to Six Degrees. . . continued relevancy.

The play rises to its comic heights after Paul's departure, which is even more dramatic and abrupt than his arrival. That's when other duped-by-Paul friends arrive, as do the various children spouting deliciously hostile comments and revelations.

All the actors make the most of their riotous cameos, but my favorites, and this production's equivalent of a show stopping song in a musical, are Ben Eisenberg's Dr. Fine and Cody Costrow as Fine's full of expletive fueled venom son Doug.

A scene introducing two poor New York newcomers, Elizabeth and Rick (Sarah Mezzanotte and Peter Mark Kendall) showcases Guare's ability to shift moods on a dime. It also adds a final version of that six-degree notion that's as problematic as it is interesting. It's Rick and Elizabeth's connection with Paul that finally lands him in jail and his desperate and futile plea for help from Ouisa. Though that paves the way for her emotional wake-up call, it also somewhat too melodramatic and points up Guare's failure to really develop the tragedy of a young man whose skin color, background and untreated mental problems is doomed to outsiderdom.

While I've heard Six Degrees. . . praised as a classic American play, I'd hesitate to go that far. In fact, the play itself is something of a clever theatrical con game. As staged and performed this time around it's a most entertaining and enjoyable game that deserves a place on your not to be missed list. .

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Six Degrees Of Separation by John Guare
Directed by Trip Cullman.
Cast: Corey Hawkins (Paul), Allison Janney (Ouisa), John Benjamin Hickey (Flan), Jim Bracchitta (Policeman), Tony Carlin (Doorman), Michael Countryman (Larkin), James Cusati-Moyer (Hustler), Ned Eisenberg (Dr. Fine), Lisa Emery (Kitty), Peter Mark Kendall (Rick), Cody Kostro (Doug), Sarah Mezzanotte (Elizabeth), Colby Minifie (Tess), Paul O'Brien (Detective), Chris Perfetti (Trent), Ned Riseley (Ben).
Sets: Mark Wendland
Costumes: Clint Ramos
Lighting: Ben Stanton
Sound:Darron L. West
Projection design: Lucy MacKinnon
Wigs: Charles G. LaPonteStage Manager:Jill Cordle
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Barrymore 243 W. 47th Street
From 4/05/17; opening 4/25/17; closing 6/18/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/22 press preview

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