I’ve always been of two minds about John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation.” While there’s no denying the title of play has entered our language as a permanent meme and Some day be attributable to Guare as his greatest quote. It will be what he’s most remembered for. But the play is considerably less than that. Or maybe it’s more, and this revival doesn’t serve him well. Or does it? I always had mixed feelings about it.
His much more cohesive “House of Blue Leaves” was the play of his that I’ve always had the most affection for. Those nuns on the fire escape in Sunnyside, Queens, on the day the Pope arrived to visit New York in the ’60s! I actually didn’t believe Sunnyside was actually a place until I looked it up on a subway map. And middle-aged Anne Meara, being Bunny, the object of Zookeeper Shaugnessy’s affection. She would sleep with him, but not cook for him. Ah! It was a grand, grand Off Broadway production in 1971 at the Truck and Warehouse Theater, the year I was beginning my own career across the street at La Mama.
But I digress. “Blue Leaves” is set in 1965. And “Six Degrees” is squarely 1990. “Blue Leaves” was all about the working class salt-of-the-earth people of Queens, all Catholics. And “Six Degrees” is set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and everyone’s Presbyterians and wealthy. I always it felt worked best as a scathing indictment of the rich. Stockard Channing was the original Ouisa Kitteridge. It was a career-best performance for Channing and she received a Tony nomination and an Oscar nomination in the film where she re-created what was her greatest role.
That production revolved around Ouisa, who was a patrician dingbat. You could totally believe the play’s unbelievable premise, that she was taken in by the African-American young man Paul, who turns up bleeding on her doorstep, begging for help, and claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s estranged son.
Here, now, on Bway, Allison Janey is none of those things. She’s one tough broad from the get-go, a powerhouse gal, who’s nobody’s fool. Gullible, she’s not. Janney, who last appeared on Bway in, of all things, “Present Laughter,” which is also being revived this season with Kate Burton as the no-nonsense, bemused ex-wife. Janney was convincingly all of those things and she was not famous or a household name yet. As television has made her. And I think television may have limited our perception of her.
I can’t buy her as flighty, fluttery society nin-com-poop, which is what Guare wrote when he created Ouisa Kittredge for Stockard Channing. Janney is thoroughly middle-class, and at best nouveau riche, and this is a play about class. And money.
John Benjamin Hickey is much closer to what Guare intended as her also kinda twee, rich husband Flan. And I did not buy Tony-nominee-for-Best-Actor Corey Hawkins as the fake Poitier son. He comes in as a gangsta, bringing all of “Straight Outta Compton” with him, and hardly seems believable in anything he tells the credulous Kittredges from the get go. So the whole production is kind of skewed sideways. The first half anyway.
It really takes off when Ouisa finds Paul (we never find out his real last name, but it’s not Poitier) having sex with a stark naked hustler, played fantastically by James Cusati-Moyer, who never puts a stitch of clothing on or tries to hide his totally nude self, as he boldy confronts the Kittredges about their hypocrisy . And Cusati-Moyer as The Hustler, who doesn’t even have a name, allows you to see he’s getting slightly exited doing it..
THEN this production of “Six Degrees” becomes 100% more believable as Janney and Hickey are suitably shocked, indignant and out-raged by this raunchy occurence in their pristine apartment, which also doubles, it seems, as an art gallery. THEN all of the Kittredge’s neighbors and children pile in and they are all totally great and believable and funny as hell. And Guare is a darkly funny writer. He almost introduced black comedy into the American theater.
The children are Colby Minifie(the Irish maid in the recent “Long Day’s Journey”), Ned Riseley, Keenan Joliff, and particularly Cody Kostro, who utterly devastates with a monologue that seems totally new. Maybe it is. Maybe Guare added it in.
And it is with Cosati-Moyer’s and Kostro’s performances that young director Trip Cullman really shines. He also did the superb “Yen” and “Significant Other” this season, both of which I adored, and both of which feature only 20-somethings. It seems Cullman is on really solid ground understanding the millennials of today. It’s the adults of 1990 who baffle him.
Of course, I have to mention that since this is set in the recent past, it’s before cell-phones or Google or texting, when the solution to Paul’s masquerade as Sidney Poitier’s gay son would’ve been instantly unmasked. It’s a wonder that Poitier never sued. And btw, this is based on a true story.