Six Degrees of Separation
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Theater review by David Cote
Yes, John Guare’s 1990 hit feels dated. Two Upper East Side culture vultures are swindled by an African-American youth pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son and their child’s Harvard classmate: In 2017, such a plot would quickly unravel with a few Google clicks and a text to the kids. And yet, while technology nails this period as pre–World Wide Web, it swings both ways. Guare’s elegant and elegiac social dramedy actually seems startlingly prophetic in the age of data mining, catfishing and avatars.
Take Paul (Corey Hawkins), a young man with limited prospects who (we learn in the latter part of the play) absorbs an improbably large volume of personal detail about various well-heeled New Yorkers—right down to the prize Kandinsky. Paul may be a writerly invention (based on real-life con man David Hampton), but in a funny way, he symbolizes the internet: a place where information is dumped and reconfigured for gain.
Of course, Paul’s really a confused, possibly bisexual petty criminal, and Hawkins endows him with just the right balance of vulnerability and class resentment. Paul’s long, heady speech on Catcher in the Rye—Guare at his stem-winding best—comes through with striking clarity and urgency, serving as a key to the work: Imagination is the root of our being, but what if our being is nothing but a tissue of fabulation?
Allison Janney is a perfect Ouisa Kittredge: martini-dry and quick with a quip, almost undone by maternal instinct. John Benjamin Hickey flits amusingly about as her art-dealer and husband Flan. The ensemble required by Guare is quite large—15 actors besides the main three—and allows small but bright turns by Lisa Emery, Michael Siberry and the luminous Colby Minifie as Flan and Ouisa’s perplexed daughter.
Trip Cullman directs with great panache on an evocatively shadowy, morphing set by Mark Wendland. The cumulative effect, once you get over the retro vibe, is renewed respect for a disquieting, still-rewarding work. With hardly any degrees separating us now, why should we feel so boxed in, split up and cut off?
Ethel Barrymore Theatre. By John Guare. Directed by Trip Cullman. With Allison Janney, John Benjamin Hickey, Corey Hawkins. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission. Through July 16.
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