Theater archives

“Six Degrees”: A Witty Con-Man Classic Picks Apart Bourgeois Complacency


In John Guare’s celebrated comedy of manners Six Degrees of Separation, currently being revived on Broadway in a vibrant new production directed by Trip Cullman, everything seems shot through with the possibility of transformation. Written and set in 1990, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of apartheid, it depicts a rapidly changing world — one hurtling forward in time even as it appears outwardly stable.

The play begins in a comfortable Upper East Side apartment, home to the well-off Kittredges: private art dealer Flanders (John Benjamin Hickey) and strategic partner Louisa (Allison Janney). Preferring the Waspy nicknames Flan and Ouisa, the two make an endearing, somewhat ludicrous couple, almost drawn from the pages of Tom Wolfe’s Radical Chic. Suddenly, a handsome young black man named Paul (Corey Hawkins) bursts in at their door, a knife wound bleeding through his Brooks Brothers shirt, and their solid world’s foundation begins to shake.

Paul tells the Kittredges that he attends Harvard with their children, that he is the son of Sidney Poitier, that he was mugged in Central Park, and that, in the kerfuffle, he lost the only printed copy of his senior thesis, a study of The Catcher in the Rye. It’s an unbelievable story, he admits, “in this age of mechanical reproduction,” but the Kittredges eat up every word, alongside a delicious Mediterranean dinner Paul prepares in their kitchen once his bleeding settles. Over supper, he waxes romantic about his thesis’s concern with the death of imagination: “To face ourselves. That’s the hard thing. The imagination. That’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination possible.”

In a queer twist of delicious plotting, however, it quickly becomes apparent that Paul is not who he claims to be, and what follows for Ouisa in the wake of that revelation is precisely the work of difficult, imaginative self-examination. The ultimately mysterious Paul blazes through the Kittredges’ lives like a meteor, vanishing almost as quickly as he arrived, but before he disappears he illuminates a deep poverty within them, gnawing away at the secure pillars and boundaries of their existence.

More than a quarter-century after its premiere, the play feels newly critical in our current neo–Gilded Age, built on debts and speculation, hollow imaginations and empty experiences. In the memorable monologue that gives the play its title, Ouisa asks us to consider what connects us, what separates us, and what we owe to one another, questions that resonate afresh in our present political climate. As an analysis of the fault lines surrounding race in America, it also bristles today with a renewed urgency. When Paul faces arrest by the police, Ouisa tries to reassure him that they won’t kill him. His blunt response: “Mrs. Louisa Kittredge, I am black.”

As Ouisa, Janney commands the stage with a calibrated mixture of poise, vulnerability, and bluntness. Hawkins scintillates in the role of Paul, lending the character a fiery intensity, occasionally to a fault in the play’s first few scenes. In describing his undergraduate research on Salinger, he channels the history of black pulpit oratory, but sometimes descends into a ranting register when he might otherwise use the language to enact a more subtle seduction. But Janney and Hawkins soon find their stride together, and as the play reaches its climax, they seize the rhythm of Guare’s drama like a pair of virtuoso musicians.

Six Degrees of Separation
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street
Through July 16