When it debuted in 1990, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation played like a satire of liberal values after the hugely disruptive confusions of a decade of Reaganism. The married couple at its core, Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, are, after all, privileged New Yorkers trapped in a farce of their own making. On one side they are beset by their hideously spoiled children, two at Harvard and one at Groton, whose narcissism is like a body odor that shoos everyone from the room. On the other side they are thrown for a loop by a young man who introduces himself, spectacularly, as Paul Poitier — you know, Sidney’s son? This Paul, who shows up unannounced and bleeding at their Fifth Avenue doorstep, is a school friend of the awful offspring, about whom he shares flattering information that the emotionally needy parents lap up. With nothing but charm he even helps Flan, a private art dealer trying to flip a mid-period Cézanne, close a deal. Before long he’s acquired a pink Oxford shirt, a room for the night, and $50 in “walking-around money.” In return, he gives them the satisfaction of doing a good colorblind turn for a smart black youth, not to mention a discreetly self-polishing anecdote to dine out on. Best of all, Paul promises to get the Kittredges roles as extras in the film his father is in New York to direct — Cats.
That musical, which Ouisa is on record as calling “an all-time low in a lifetime of theatergoing,” is the giveaway, to us if not the Kittredges, that Paul is a fraud: a fraud who today would be unmasked by a few taps on an iPhone. The question about the Broadway revival that opens tonight has therefore been whether its satire would still sting in the radically different environment — technological, but also social, and political — that New York liberals now occupy. The answer is yes, even if, at the edges, the play has been softened by time and by a production, directed by the very busy Trip Cullman, that gets a few things wrong. But at the core, especially in the character of Ouisa as now portrayed by the spectacular Allison Janney, it gets everything right. The moral blindness that lets elites like the Kittredges think they are not in fact elites but just folks living “hand-to-mouth on a higher plateau,” gets a punishing workout in her superlative comic performance.
That performance starts off beautifully even before she speaks; with her lanky frame topped by a perfect 1990 blonde-socialite wig by Charles G. LaPointe, Janney suggests a descendant of screwball heiresses played by the likes of Katharine Hepburn. The play’s strategy of direct address, most of it delivered by Ouisa, requires that kind of complicated likability: the kind that feels honest and withholding at the same time. No doubt Janney’s years as White House press secretary C.J. Cregg on The West Wing (which also starred the original Ouisa, Stockard Channing, as the First Lady) honed her multi-message capabilities to the point where she could render Ouisa’s mille-feuille of deceit and self-deceit without any obvious effort. This is key because, like most of us, she would not like to be known as the silly dupe of a serial scammer. (Certainly Osborn and Inger Elliott, the Newsweek editor and fabric designer on whom the story is based, would have preferred not to achieve fame for their credulity.) And yet something that happened between Ouisa and Paul, and then, as a result, between Ouisa and Flan, has made the incident more than just that dinner-table anecdote; it has cut to the core of her self-definition in a way that she needs to air. Hence the play.
What is it that happened? Thanks to Janney, and a finely balanced performance by Corey Hawkins (late of The Walking Dead), you understand that Paul and Ouisa have fallen in a kind of love. It is an impossible love, of course, but so are the other kinds on offer. This is where the production, following some of the narrative’s weaker contours, goes soft. The kids — not just the Kittredges’ three but a bunch of others, equally vile, who become part of the story — have always been too-easy targets. The repeated Cats jokes give away not only Paul’s scam but Guare’s: the feint by which he aimed to make the play funny at any cost. (He totally succeeded.) Cullman, too, emphasizes the traditional theatrical elements as a way of comforting the audience when, I kept feeling, it ought to be afflicted. Literally at one point, Mark Wendland’s beautiful, scary set for the Kittredges’ apartment, with its blood-red walls, revolving Kandinsky, and secret depths of halls and rooms hidden behind scrims, pulls aside to allow scenes set elsewhere in their own domain. (Paul also scams a young Mormon couple who have much more to lose.) Somehow, this lets the air out of the drama, which is primarily Ouisa’s and should probably have stayed in her living room. Likewise, John Benjamin Hickey’s take on Flan, though smart and convincing in itself, does not contribute in the strongest way to the play’s central argument. Too well matched with Janney in being immensely appealing onstage, he is thus no foil or backstop. As Ouisa comes to understand that her marriage is itself a kind of scam, if a mutual one, we have to take her word for it; Hickey makes it seem awfully nice.
But even softened slightly as it is in this production, the play’s brutal message to sophisticates, whether at the end of Reagan’s era or the start of Trump’s, comes through. We still do not know anyone but ourselves — and ourselves not too well, either. The idea that there are “six degrees of separation” between any two people, which in Guare’s formulation became a global catchphrase, is not merely a humanistic piety about interconnectedness; it’s also a warning. Those six degrees are unbridgeable if you live on an island.
Six Degrees of Separation is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through July 16.