If you recall the 1993 movie of Six Degrees of Separation, notable among other things for being Will Smith’s first movie role post-Fresh Prince, what you may remember was its crisp archness. John Guare’s 1990 play that the film was based on was nominated for both Tony and Pulitzer prizes, and the film proudly, and winningly, paraded the piece’s theatrical roots.
What linked both stage and movie was Stockard Channing, who had played Ouisa, one half of the Upper East Side couple gulled by young black imposter Paul: Channing stuck with the production from its early off-Broadway incarnation through to the movie. And it is her shadow that the wonderful Allison Janney—playing Ouisa in the present Broadway revival, directed by Trip Cullman—must escape from.
This Janney does with all the command and blithe swagger you’d hope: Janney is a more soigné hostess than the more beady, enquiring Channing-Ouisa.
This revival is 90 minutes, without any intermission, and so goes at a whipcrack pace, with Janney and John Benjamin Hickey (as Flan, Ouisa’s husband) breaking the fourth wall between audience and actors by addressing us to convey extra-narrative detail. They are both lead characters, and authorial guides: a side-eye and a wink are never far away. In those 90 minutes a rollercoaster of race, sexuality, money, and class spins dizzily, with comedy and tragedy as brusque neighbors.
We can’t see the fullness of Ouisa and Flan’s apartment, because it has red, semi-opaque screens making the lights of the apartment and the rest of the space blurred behind it. Red was the color of the apartment in the movie too, but what does it mean: passion, blood, wealth, guilt? It is not clear.
Surely there must be a point to this design cover-up. But no. This is a strange and restrictive design decision that isn’t resolved when one of the screens is lifted to reveal not that much more of the stage. Why not just show us the whole apartment?
Still, Janney and Hickey marshal the production engagingly—whether smug, tricked, or pained—and Corey Hawkins as Paul is a coy, seductive, sly, and lively destabilizing presence, serving up a gorgeous supper and a platter of lies to inveigle his way into their lives. The satire of the true politics and character of rich Upper East Side liberals is pin-sharp, which must be fun for all the rich Upper East Side liberals watching in the stalls.
Ouisa and Flan, wanting to make some big money from art with a lugubrious investor played by Michael Siberry, accept that Paul is a friend of their children’s, and that he is also the son of Sidney Poitier. All their white liberal dreams are brimming. He must stay the night, they implore.
Later, in one of the best pieces of staged chaos on Broadway this season, they are shocked to discover Paul having sex with a hustler (played by a lithe, very naked James Cusati-Moyer), who does not—as you might expect—take his leave from the apartment as quickly as possible. Instead, Cusati-Moyer slinks and leaps around the flat in the buff, eventually positioning himself on top of a prone Flan—he bets he enjoys it, the hustler says, and Flan’s flusteredness is momentarily ambiguous—before departing by blowing Ouisa an insolent yet worshipful kiss.
From here, things descend into a demented detective game as the couple tries to find out the truth about Paul. Soon they discover they are merely the latest victims of his lies. This is no comfort: as New Yorkers they hoped their experience would be unique. In an explosive scene, the children, disbelieving at their parents’ gullibility, shout and wail dramatically about all their troubles, and why their parents are so at fault. The brats of the early 90s were as entitled as the millennial brats of today. Brats are brats in perpetuity.
After having so much agency, we see Paul stripped of it. A comedy of deceit and manners becomes a much darker tragedy of personal circumstance. The most marginalized character on stage (black, poor, possibly gay, alone) is made even more marginalized, and Ouisa doesn’t know what to do. Her lament runs as follows: She liked Paul, but how could he do this, but how can they help him, but should they just leave him be? If one thing white privilege allows its most elite practitioners, it is the capacity for elegant anguish and self-recrimination before cocktail hour. One must make cocktail hour.
We go back in time to see Paul manipulate and destroy—using his homosexuality—a young man whom he desires more for his contacts book than his body. Later Paul uses his sexuality again in destroying a young straight couple that tries to help him. None of these are bad plot points in themselves (there’s nothing like a villain specializing in sexual mindfuckery), but the play intriguingly shows gay sexuality to be weaponized and transactional.
The play’s most significant painting, a Kandinsky, hangs over all the action—and what does its centrality finally tell us? Perhaps, for one, that this a play about the perversity of worth: of the works of art that Ouisa and Flan are so engaged in dealing with, and—in contrast—of a human life, Paul’s, which they show a terrible incomprehension about. Well, it’s worth a lot of money, and its deeper significance, as Paul signals to Ouisa, is one of interpretation; the two great knots—material and psychological--of the play on one canvas. In the end, Paul, whatever has happened to him, has the power of that knowledge. Which may not be worth much, but it’s something.
Six Degrees of Separation is at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, NYC. Book tickets here.