John Guare’s cynically entertaining but also meaningful play “Six Degrees of Separation” is getting a sparkling revival with a first-rate cast under the super-charged direction of Trip Cullman. I don’t recall the original production being as broad as this one, although memory might fail me. In any event, as comically outrageous as this treatment sometimes is, at the bottom is an element of pathos and serious recognition of the two-tiered milieu Guare investigates.
Allison Janney is absolutely superb as Ouisa, married to the excellent John Benjamin Hickey as Flan, an art dealer. They live the upper class life in New York—the play is set in 1990—and are busy with trying to work out a deal that will provide riches. They are fed up with their churlish, go-their-own-way children. By addressing the audience directly with their narrative comments, they establish a direct connection.
Into their lives enters Corey Hawkins as Paul, a young attractive African-American con man, who bursts into their apartment with a wound (self-inflicted, it turns out) and is compassionately given shelter. He soon claims to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier, which excites his benefactors, who invite him to stay the night. But they are horrified to find the next morning that he has picked up a man and has been having sex with him in their apartment. They order him to leave. It turns out amusingly that another couple they know has also been hoodwinked by the con, and there is a running gag about the promise by Paul that his supposed father Poitier would put them into a film version of “Cats.”
But the central joke about affluent whites being conned by a black man has more depth to it, thanks to the insightful performance by Hawkins. His con comes across ultimately as desperation to be recognized as a human being with aspirations that have been frustrated, and that adds a dimension to the play. Hawkins is to be credited for finding the nuances in his performance that exist beneath his terrible behavior and emphasizes the theme of haves and have-nots.
The experience of being subjected to his deception also reveals a fissure in te marriage of Ouisa and Flan. Ouisa is more compassionate than her husband, and she finds an odd connection between her and Paul. In following her human instincts, Ouisa desperately wants to help Paul, and the entire incident defines the difference between her and her husband, vocalized in a telling, confrontational statement she makes to Flan with profound dramatic effect.
Guare has in his work exhibited the ability to combine humor with depth of observation about his characters and society. That gift is very much present here, thanks to the direction and acting, by the supporting cast as well as the leads, that nails the essence of Guare’s challenging play. It is remarkably charged with laughter in this staging, and yet the corner is successfully turned to accent the ultimate sadness and tragedy inherent in the work. At the Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street. Phone: 212-239-6200. Reviewed May 3, 2017.