If there’s one thing to be learned from the beautifully unsettling Broadway revival of Six Degrees of Separation it’s this: There’s no expiration date on a Cats joke. Nearly 30 years after John Guare’s drama premiered, the most absurd (and absurdly funny) thread isn’t that a clutch of wealthy Manhattanites were hoodwinked by a sweet-talking stranger claiming to be Sidney Poitier’s son; it’s that he promised them all parts in the movie version of Cats — and they were thrilled.
“You went to Cats. You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theater-going,” spits Tess (Colby Minifie) accusingly to her parents, Louisa, aka Ouisa (seven-time Emmy winner Allison Janney, absolutely sublime) and Flanders, aka Flan (The Normal Heart Tony winner John Benjamin Hickey). “Film is a different medium,” Ouisa sighs.
As for the rest of Guare’s delicious social satire, it’s aged nearly as well as the Cats quips — far better than you’d expect, considering that the title phrase is now firmly entrenched in our vernacular. “I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people,” says Ouisa. “It’s a profound thought.” (Side note: Does anyone still play the resultant pop-culture parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon”?)
The way that Ouisa and Flan — and their friends — get fooled by Paul (Straight Outta Compton’s Corey Hawkins, appropriately mysterious), the faux Poitier, provides plenty of comic fodder: a face-off with a hyperactive naked hustler; the appearance of assorted sullen, rancorous college-age children (sample insult: “Dad, sometimes it is so obvious to me why Mom left”); the suspicious delivery of a pot of jam.
But there’s plenty of profundity as well. In the span of 90 minutes, Ouisa goes from talking about touring South Africa to see super-poor people to promising Paul that she’ll take him under her wing, teach him, and love him. She’s no longer content with her high-stakes art-dealer husband. On the outside, she is polished and buffed and shined to perfection — not a hair out of place in that shellacked East Side matron bob; but inside, she’s “a collage of unaccounted-for brush strokes.” In an argument with Flan, she asks him this question — one that I suspect Guare wants us all to ask ourselves: “How much of your life can you account for?” Three days later, I still don’t have my answer. A-