Six Degrees of Separation was inspired by the true story of con man David Hampton who, in the 1980s, ingratiated himself with several well heeled Manhattan residents by misrepresenting himself as a friend of their children and the son of Sidney Poitier. The young man evoked sympathy garnering various gifts and assistance. One couple allowed him to spend the night only to discover two strangers occupying the morning guestroom. Hampton was eventually caught, tried and acquitted.
Playwright John Guare found himself fascinated with the ease with which Hampton accomplished his deception, particularly the way it reflected on the moneyed class he snookered. (He had the story firsthand from friends who’d believed the boy.) What made the grifter so appealing and relatable to his hosts? Did he change their lives?
Allison Janney and Benjamin Hickey
Paul (Corey Hawkins) appears at the Fifth Avenue door of Ouisa (Allison Janey) and Flan (John Benjamin Hickey) unannounced and bleeding. He tells the couple he’s a Harvard friend of their children and having been mugged across the street in Central Park, remembered the Kittridges proximity. He’s eloquent and well dressed.
The interloper couldn’t have picked a worse night. Ouisa and Flan are entertaining Geoffrey (the somewhat unintelligible Michael Sieberry), a wealthy South African friend whom they hope will supply the last two million dollars of a deal to purchase and resell a Cezanne. (Flan is a discreet art dealer.) Still, they can’t turn the boy away. He’s not only immensely flattering but seems to know everything about them.
Before the evening ends, Paul has declared himself the son of Sidney Poitier (about whom he’s also well versed) and promised them Extra jobs in the artist’s imminent production of Cats-the movie (Ouisa calls Flan a “starfucker” for asking, but they’re both extremely impressed.) He’s regaled his captive audience with the text of his (stolen) thesis – a theory that the iconic Catcher in the Rye has turned into “a manifesto of hate” (the red deer hunter hat is conjectured as indicating a killer of men), whipped up five star pasta, and indirectly secured Flan’s investment funds.
Lisa Emery, Michael Countryman, Allison Janney, Ned Eisenberg, John Benjamin Hickey
The next morning, Ouisa goes in to wake their guest so he might meet his dad at The Sherry Netherland and finds him having sex with another boy. Outraged, she throws them both out. (James Cusati-Moyer’s wild turn as the naked hustler is wonderfully played and directed.) “Give me back my $50.00!” demands Flan. “I spent it,” Paul responds nodding towards his company. “Please don’t tell my father, he doesn’t know…”
At this point, friends Kitty (Lisa Emery) and Larkin (Michael Countryman) show up with a similar story, bragging the anecdote. The group realizes they’ve been taken. A police detective (Paul O’Brien) can be no help. What are the charges?! By the time Dr. Fine has given Paul his brownstone keys and a young couple who can ill afford it are ripped off (a splendidly imagined tangent), Paul seems unstoppable.
In search of answers, the adults interview their collective kids, Tess (Colby Minifie), Woody (Keenan Jolliff) and Ben (Ned Riseley). (One remains at Groton.) Instead of help, the spoiled young people unleash anger and disparagement. (This is hysterically performed and directed.) Tess, however, tracks a theory to Paul’s ignominious “origin.” (Chris Perfetti does a fine job as Trent, the link here.)
Lisa Emery, Ned Eisenberg, Cody Kostro, Keenan Jolliff, John Benjamin Hickey, Allison Janney, Ned Riseley, Colby Minifie, Michael Countryman
The rest of the play, in fact the piece, centers on Ouisa’s strong connection to the needy, aspiring Paul who continues, rife with delusions, to reach out until captured. An existence with which she’s been content seemed suddenly as much an illusion as the young man’s masquerade and for reasons just as compelling.
Playwright John Guare’s 27 year-old piece holds just as much bite as it did when it emerged. Sharp satire is enhanced by on-target detail and wry syntax. Current purveyors of “fake news” give it an additional dimension. Paul’s theory about the Saroyan classic is clever. Flan’s muses on art are erudite. Watch for the second Paul reverts, when he tells Ouisa he likes being watched.
Ouisa’s hypothesis that everyone is linked to everyone else through six acquaintances (here, the boy who taught Paul how to seem as if he belonged and children of those duped) has beco0me a part of modern lexicon. “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,” she declares towards the end of the tale.
Corey Hawkins and Allison Janney
Allison Janney (Ouisa) is splendid, her appreciable comedic talents well showcased. Expression, tone, pitch perfect timing, and patrician demeanor make the actress a pleasure to watch. Despite being drawn to and moved by Paul, Janney’s take on Ouisa does not emulate that of Stockard Channing who played the character at Lincoln Center and in the film. Janney is less visibly emotional, more pragmatic. Still we see the shift.
John Benjamin Hickey does a yeoman like job but is miscast, lacking an Alpha Male persona.
As Paul, Corey Hawkins gives us a well honed Tom Ripley-like character (Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley) an absorber of others’ lives at all costs. He’s convincingly Ivy League when spinning webs and frighteningly street predatory in a flashback. Unlike Tom, this young man lacks luck and funding or he might be out there still.
Of the supporting cast, Colby Minifie makes Tess as credibly smart as she is whiney and demanding; Peter Mark Kendall manifests a young victim named Rick with naivete, excitement, and shock; Ned Eisenberg imbues Dr. Fine with querulous confidence.
Director Trip Cullman offers an interpretation with black humored snap and imagination. Staging is minimal and sharp-edged. When emotion shows itself, it’s all the more effective.
Mark Wendland’s stark RED set is unnerving from the get-go which somewhat telegraphs issues to come and perhaps shouldn’t. Hanging a large, two-sided Kandinsky which figures in the piece, high above heads works well as a symbol. Minimal furniture is exactly right. Clint Ramos’ Costumes don’t look sufficiently expensive. Ben Stanton’s often imaginative Lighting Design emphasizes rigidity and pith.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Corey Hawkins; John Benjamin Hickey & Allison Janney
Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare
Directed by Trip Cullman
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
243 West 47th Street