In the late 1980s, a young con artist insinuated himself into a group of wealthy Manhattanites by claiming to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier. The incident became the subject of a prominent article in the New York Times, which in turn became the basis for a Pulitzer Prize–winning play by renowned playwright John Guare. Actor’s Express is presenting a new production of Guare’s famous 1990 work Six Degrees of Separation through February 9.
Those who have never seen the play or the movie will probably find enough to enjoy here — it’s a smartly paced, witty, often thought-provoking, often scorchingly satiric show. But those who have seen the movie or other productions may leave slightly baffled: why this, why now? The show was made into a decent and easily accessible 1993 movie that stuck closely to the spirit and script of the original play. Actor’s Express has assembled a fine cast, but Stockard Channing, Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellen and Will Smith (in one of his first movie roles) are pretty tough acts to follow.
And surprisingly, the 1990 play script does not hold up terribly well for those who saw it in its time. There’s already much about the work that seems dated. Figures from another place and time are being sent up, and they seem, in retrospect, not to have merited the skewering that’s attempted here. In the huge catalog of human foibles, the Kittredges’ faults don’t seem worthy of a piercing X-ray or grim diagnosis. Their desire not to appear racist; their interest in knowing things outside their narrow circle while desperately seeking to stay safe inside of it; and their conflation of art, business and social interaction are not particularly admirable qualities, I suppose, but they’re not outrageously detestable or even remarkably aberrant (or tragic, funny or interesting) either. Many wealthy people don’t mind if they appear racist, or have no real desire to experience anything outside their narrow circle. And while some conflate money, art and social interaction, plenty are happy to leave art out of the mix.
Even in late-20th-century New York, Guare’s satiric rapier seemed to be straying from more deserving targets, but the target doesn’t even seem to be in the same room as the rapier in Georgia in 2014. Guare satirized wealthy, progressive, art-loving New Yorkers — in other words, his audience. In the original production, the actors sat in the front row before the show began, a conceit that emphasized the immediacy of what was being presented. The “pot of jam” schtick, meant to provide a moment of recognition about the pretenses of wealthy Manhattanites, is dragged out too many times: it seems thoroughly exhausted by the end.
The central “six degrees” idea — every person is connected to every other person on the planet by an invisible, but surprisingly direct, line of six people — is still interesting, but perhaps less mind-blowing and revelatory now that we’re all on the internet every day and tend to deal with this in a more readily apparent way. (Facebook data analysis even purports to tell us that the number is actually significantly lower than six: 4.74 is its estimate).
Unlike the real con artist, who was obviously using his wits to get some fast cash, the character Paul’s true motives are elusive. In the play, he seldom asks for — and even seems genuinely reluctant to accept — actual money from his wealthy marks. Paul apparently longs not just to have what these white people have but to gain their acceptance, to remain among them, to be one of them, to be them, which some viewers may find a problematic stage representation of a black man: a blank, history-less cypher who is defined almost entirely by his desire to belong in a wealthy white family.