Six Degrees of Separation: Very Well, Indeed.
“Well, Indeed.” It’s almost all one can say at that crucial moment in the Broadway revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. That line, spoken by Allison Janney (West Wing, Broadway’s 9 to 5), as the well -off Ouisa, breaks the hanging silence and sense of wonder. Ouisa is the wife of the successful art dealer, Flan, played with precision and expertise by the amazing John Benjamin Hickey (The Normal Heart, Dada Woof Papa Hot). She, nor anyone in the room, can think of nothing else to say. It is spoken brilliantly by Janney with a wondrous excitement after a breathtaking lecture on a stolen thesis centered around the book, ‘Catcher in the Rye‘. But the speech is also about so much more as soliloquiad by the equally wondrous Corey Hawkins (Straight Outta Compton, Roundabout’s Suicide, Incorporated). Hawkins is Paul, the young black man that flies his way into the home of these two liberals on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with a stab wound to his abdomen, a story about a mugging, and a few familiar names dropped immediately to gain entrance. This all happens quickly and with a great deal of surprise on a very important night. Elephants are in the room, figuratively speaking, in the guise of the South African guest, Geoffrey, portrayed by the exquisite Michael Siberry (MTC’s An Enemy of the People). Deals are trying to be made, slyly and casually, but the real sales deal that is being orchestrated is by Paul, unbeknownst to all.
As directed by Trip Cullman (Yen, Significant Other), Paul weaves a story that enwraps these intelligent upper east side liberals because it drips with shadows and elements of privilege, intimacy, familiarity, and an opportunity for these privileged parents to prove their own liberalism and ideals against racism, paranoia, and stereotypes. They desperately want to engage this young man, bring him into their outstretched caring arms, in an effort to quiet the guilt and shame of white privilege and also, layered on top, is a strong desire to believe his stories about their own children. Children that are as estranged and distance from them as this young man is engaged and in need of their care.
Hanging over the space is the metaphorically rich two sided painting that will be used by Paul to ensnare them. As the stories get told, and the engagement crystalizes, the layered and rich play spirals forward. Two sides to all stories, remember. But then, shockingly, a hustler (energetically played by a beautifully sculptured James Cusati-Moyer making his Broadway debut) brings it all crashing down. This shockwave ushers in doubt, confusion, and some other well-heeled parents and friends of the family. Kitty and Larkin, played to perfection by Lisa Emery (Casa Valentina) and Michael Countryman (Wit) rush in with a surprising story of their own to tell. Followed shortly by another tale from another parent, Dr. Fine, hilariously portrayed by Ned Eisenberg (Rocky). Something has to be done, they say, but what? And really, Cats??
And then in flops the children, a well educated but angry gang of disenfranchised young adults, disengaged from the parents and embarrassed at every turn by them. The group, played with an exaggerated sense of frustration and disgust by a strong company of young actors, Colby Minifie (Long Day’s Journey into Night) as Tess, Keenan Jolliff (Rebel in the Rye) as Woody, Ned Riseley (Broadway debut) as Ben, and Cody Kostro (Dead Poets Society) as Doug, all have their moments when they could truly shine, but the clownish quality they are directed to take does them no favors. That stance keeps them at about the same arms length from us as they are from their parents. It’s a shame, because the writing gives them plenty of options to be the disgruntled young adults, embarrassed and pissed with their parents, while still giving us real humans. Instead they give us over exaggerated grunts and shouts, that are funny but not centered. Once the fireball Tess meets with former classmate and outsider, Trent, played with a nervous intensity by Chris Perfetti (Signature’s Everybody), she finally calms down a bit, lowering the volume, and in doing so, gives us the able to reach her and connect to her repressed desire to be noticed. The phone call to her parents speaks volumes about the deep divide that separates all the children from their caring, rich, but confused parents. “I’m going to utterly destroy my life because it is the only way to hurt you.” Or be seen by you.
With a dramatic turn of events, a young trusting couple, Rick, portrayed by Peter Mark Kendall (The Rose Tattoo) and his sweet girlfriend, Elizabeth, achingly played by Sarah Mezzanotte (The Wolves), revolve into the orbit of Paul, and from this moment moving forward, the play could have used a slowed down approach. The serious turn of events requires a breath and a pause, but it felt like the director kept the action barreling forward. It spirals forward like a car skidding towards a snowbank. Pump the breaks a bit, and don’t let go of the wheel, or you’ll loose control and surely crash.
It doesn’t crash, but some moments of deep engagement might have been misplaced. It does retain its intimacy though. Throughout. This play, which in my memory existed as a three or four person drama turns out to have one huge cast. I was shocked as more and more people arrived on stage, telling me that my memory of the film had failed me. But it also doesn’t surprise me either, looking back. Based on a true story told to Guare of a con man and robber who managed to convince a number of well-off people in the 1980s that he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier. In a way, this is really just an intimate story of three souls crashing together in a crazy messed up world. Janney is particularly magnificent as the wife taken in by a young man’s unconscious desire to be seen and held. She is devastatingly on point in the phone call scene with both her daughter and Paul. Her maternal instincts of being needed and wanted by this young man, in a way that her own children and her husband don’t utilize her, is ignited. It’s tender and powerful. As she states, “I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It’s a profound thought. How Paul found us. How to find the man whose son he pretends to be. Or perhaps is his son, although I doubt it. How every person is a new door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people.” It makes us feel much more connected to her than six degrees.