In this Broadway revival, laughter leads to serious ideas
"It's a play about the desperate need to be seen."
Six Degrees of Separation delivers a complex kind of fun. On its surface, John Guare's 1990 play is all clever jokes and fast-moving action, telling the story of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, wealthy Upper East Siders who are conned by Paul, a young man pretending to be Sidney Poitier's son. But between Paul's sly mastery of "rich people's language" and the Kittredge's bumbling attempts to learn his real name, heavier ideas crash onto the stage.
How, the play asks, do we construct our identities for the people we want to impress? Are any of us truly being ourselves? And which famous actor's son would make us go limp with wonder?
Trip Cullman has been wrestling with these questions for years. He has a long history with the show, and he is currently directing its Broadway revival, which is now in previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. After a recent performance, I spoke with him about what he's just now discovering in the script and how his 1980s fashion sense unexpectedly informed this production. Here are the highlights of our conversation.
Note: There are several spoilers ahead.
Mark Blankenship: How well did you know this play before you started this production?
Trip Cullman: My relationship to this play goes back to growing up in Manhattan and my parents taking me to theatre the way other people take their kids to church. In my formative years I saw Six Degrees of Separation and Angels in America and Love! Valour! Compassion! and Falsettos, and as a young gay man, I was able to say, "Oh, this is who I am being represented back to me." It was a very powerful experience.
So Six Degrees was one of the first Broadway shows I saw, and it was very powerful.
And then in college, I acted at Yale Rep in a production of [John Guare's] Landscape of the Body with Laura Linney. John was involved, and we met, and we've been friends ever since. And about 10 years ago, I did a production of Six Degrees of Separation at the Old Globe. John came to see the production, and he said it was his favorite since the original. So I guess you could say that this play and I have had this date since the beginning.
MB: Given your history, have you learned anything new this time around?
TC: Oh yes. John and I both. It's a mark of a great piece of writing that its secrets and mysteries reveal themselves to you every time you encounter it. It's been a real pleasure to be in the rehearsal room with John and have him say, "Wow, I've never thought of that moment like that before" or "I've never heard that line that way before." For instance, at the end – [after Paul's cons have landed him in trouble with the law] – Paul says, "Mrs. Louisa Kittredge, I am black." About her needing to take him to the police. To me, in an era of Black Lives Matter, that line has a poignancy and a political resonance that I don't think it had in 1990.
Allison Janney (as Ouisa) and John Benjamin Hickey (as Flan)
MB: Tell me more about the play's modern resonance.
TC: It's complicated, because it's a play that's about self-loathing. It's about characters who don't like who they are, and that goes for everybody.
MB: Except for maybe the hustler that Paul sneaks into the Kittredges' apartment for some illicit sex. He seems pretty confident.
TC: Except for maybe the hustler! I think that's exactly right. I also think it's a play about the desperate need to be seen. And I feel like that last conversation between Ouisa and Paul over the phone – it's the first time in Paul's life that someone has seen him for who he truly is, rather than who he's pretended to be, and has accepted him. And for Ouisa, it's the first time in her life that she has exposed who SHE truly is. She's performing her existence in parallel with the way Paul performs his existence. And that really crystallized for me in the last few days.
It's fascinating to be in the rehearsal room with Corey [Hawkins, who plays Paul], working through the dinner party and how Paul performs his blackness for these white people on the Upper East Side. It's incredibly thorny. He has to kind of act like a white person in order for them to find his presence palatable. I just found this thing where Paul talks about growing up with white servants, and I thought, 'Oh! Flan should be pouring you a drink when you say that!"
MB: Yes! People really laughed at that when I saw the show.
TC: Thank you! And the way Paul negotiates a conversation has a different resonance now. I remember those being huge laugh moments in the original production, but with the luxury of retrospect after 27 years, it resonates in a much more complicated way. It's not so much about getting laughs. It's about really seeing the politics of representation on stage.
MB: That's like how, after she realizes she's been conned, Ouisa says, "He wanted to be us." And she's sad about it, because she doesn't believe she's worthy of being envied. However, WE can see that by saying that, she clearly doesn't appreciate why a poor person of color might aspire to her wealth and comfort. For me, that made her moment of bewildered awakening as frustrating as it was touching. It was both.
TC: That's exactly right. Ouisa's a character who has never had to make a moral decision in her life, until she has this encounter. We would say "Ouisa Got Woke," which I've been joking is the subtitle of the play. She has to make this moral decision, and it forces her to question everything
Allison Janney (as Ouisa) and Corey Hawkins (as Paul)
MB: But at the same time, the play is really funny, especially when the Kittredges and their friends get their college-aged kids to investigate Paul. Those scenes are hilarious, because the kids are all so over-the-top about how much they hate their parents and the world and just everything. How did you find the tone for those characters?
TC: Well, that's partly because I'm a native New Yorker who grew up on the Upper East Side, so I just put one of the characters in the LL Bean sweater that was the most coveted item in my grade school. It was really just me mirroring my teenage self back to my adult self. And I think that in a play in which one of the spines is the desperate need to be seen, these kids are incredibly unhappy. For Flan, his notion of good parenting is just that he got his kids into the right schools, and then he washes his hands of it. So these kids are desperate to be seen, and their rage and anguish at not being seen in that section is the comic apex. Whereas Paul's desperate need to be scene in Act III is the tragic apex.
MB: It's interesting that you say "Act III," even though the play is only 90 minutes with no intermission.
TC: The play really feels like it's in three acts. The first act is this gorgeous dinner party sequence, and the hustler ruptures that. Then we're in this farcical detective story, which is all the kids and parents trying to figure out who conned them. And then with the advent of Trent Conway, the kids' boarding school classmate who led Paul into this elite world, we're in Act III, which is a kind of descent into tragedy.
MB: When you put it that way, I'm reminded that gay people drive all the big shifts in the play – the hustler, Trent, and eventually Paul. How interesting!
TC: I always say to Chris Perfetti – who plays Trent – that Trent Conway could exist in the 40s or in 2017. He is this great, queer outsider, and he's part of a tradition of queer outsiders. That's one of those deeper rivers of transgression that's running underneath this highly mainstream classic.
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Follow TDF Stages editor Mark Blankenship at @IAmBlankenship. Follow TDF at at @TDFNYC.
Photos by Joan Marcus. Top photo (L to R): Corey Hawkins, Allison Janney, and John Benjamin Hickey.