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In 1983, David Hampton talked his way into several apartments owned by wealthy New Yorkers, claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Award-winning playwright and screenwriter John Guare heard the story from friends of his, Inger McCabe Elliott and Osborn Elliott, who were among those who took in Hampton, and turned the true tale first into a 1990 play, which premiered at the Mitzi E. Newhouse at Lincoln Center and moved upstairs to the Vivian Beaumont for its Broadway debut, and then a 1993 film, directed by Fred Schepisi. It is now having its first Broadway revival, and it’s as sharp and delightful as ever, skewering white liberal guilt, societal racism, and the child-rearing of the wealthy with glee and wit to spare. Six Degrees of Separation is set in an elegant Fifth Avenue apartment, where private art dealer Flan (John Benjamin Hickey) and his chi-chi wife, Ouisa (Allison Janney), have just gone through a traumatic experience. They relate in flashback, often addressing the audience directly, precisely what happened to shake them up so much. Flan and Ouisa, who are both in their forties, were enjoying an evening with their friend Geoffrey (Michael Siberry), a wealthy South African businessman whom they plan to wine and dine into an art investment deal. When asked why he stays in South Africa, where apartheid is still in effect, Geoffrey, who employs seventy thousand black workers in one of his mines, explains, “One has to stay there to educate the black workers, and we’ll know we’ve been successful when they kill us.” When Geoffrey asks Flan and Ouisa to visit him in South Africa, she opines, “But we’d visit you and sit in your gorgeous house planning trips into the townships demanding to see the poorest of the poor. ‘Are you sure they’re the worst off? I mean, we’ve come all this way. We don’t want to see people just mildly victimized by apartheid. We demand shock.’ It doesn’t seem right sitting on the East Side talking about revolution.” Their evening is interrupted when the doorman (Tony Carlin) brings in a young man who bleeding from a recent attack in Central Park. Paul (Corey Hawkins) claims to be friends with Ouisa and Flan’s children (they have two kids at Harvard and one at Groton) as well as being the son of famed actor Poitier. The three white people see this as an excellent opportunity to help a black man, so they take him in, getting particularly excited when Paul promises that they can appear in the movie version of Cats, which his father is directing. But later that night they find out a whole lot more about Paul that is not quite so comforting.
Guare (The House of Blue Leaves, Atlantic City) does an expert job exploring the racial divide, one that hasn’t changed all that much in America since 1990. “I never knew I was black in that racist way till I was sixteen and came back here,” Paul explains about his return to the States after being raised in Switzerland. Although Guare didn’t come up with the Poitier reference — that was done by the real Hampton — it allows the playwright to subtly pontificate on the boundary-breaking actor so beloved by black and white audiences. “Your father means a great deal in South Africa,” Geoffrey points out, while Dr. Fine (Ned Eisenberg), who treated Paul at the hospital, calls Poitier “a matinee idol of my youth. Somebody who had really forged ahead and made new paths for blacks just by the strength of his own talent.” Also getting involved are Flan and Ouisa’s friends Kitty (Lisa Emery) and Larkin (Michael Countryman) and several of the adults’ less-than-happy children, including Woody (Keenan Jolliff), Doug (Cody Kostro), Tess (Colby Minifie), and Ben (Ned Riseley), who have some terse words to share with their parents. “There are two sides to every story,” Dr. Fine tells his son, Doug, a theme that also relates to the painting Flan and Ouisa have hanging in their living room, a two-sided Kandinsky described thusly by Guare: “One side is geometric and somber. The other side is wild and vivid.” There are plenty of both sides in the play.
Seven-time Emmy winner and two-time Tony nominee Janney (The West Wing, A View from the Bridge) and Tony winner and Emmy nominee Hickey (The Normal Heart, The Big C) portray the quintessential East Side couple — previously played onstage by John Cunningham and Stockard Channing and on film by Channing and Donald Sutherland — with grace and skill, masterfully blending humor and irony. Hawkins (Hurt Village, 24: Legacy) is a worthy successor to previous Paul portrayers James McDaniel off Broadway, Courtney B. Vance on Broadway, and Will Smith on film; he keeps the audience guessing just as he does the gullible characters. The show is smoothly directed by Obie winner Trip Cullman (Significant Other, Punk Rock), moving back and forth between the past and the present, although the red scrim in the back of Mark Wendland’s set is confusing. “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people,” Ouisa says. “Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. The President of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that A) tremendously comforting that we’re so close and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection.” This revival of Six Degrees of Separation, continuing at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through July 16, makes quite a connection itself.