John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," which has moved upstairs to the Vivian Beaumont, remains the most exhilarating theater in town.
Guare's play is based on an actual incident of a young black man who insinuated himself into the homes - and lives - of well-to-do, prominent New Yorkers.
In his brilliant 1970 essay "Radical Chic," Tom Wolfe noted that among wealthy liberals, dwelling in a world of unreal luxury, there was a deep yearning for the grubby, real world of their ancestors. This yearning stemmed partly from feelings of guilt about their money. It explained the desire of a trendy art dealer to give fund-raising parties for the Black Panthers.
These days, the anguish of the limousine liberals has intensified. It's harder for them to take themselves or their now neglected ideals so seriously. Their children, the heirs of their "revolutionary" aspirations, hold them in contempt. The real world itself, grubby or not, has become bewildering. So they have taken refuge in their artifacts, their (forgive the use of a pornographic word, but I have no choice) lifestyles.
Hence, they are flattered when the young black man, Paul, asks them, "Why has imagination become a synonym for style? I believe the imagination is the passport we create to take us into the real world ... the imagination. That's God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable."
By sharing his ideas with them, Paul assuages their guilt almost as effectively as the Panthers did by accepting their canapes.
Paul undergoes his own crisis. He loses his cynicism about his prey; he sentimentalizes them, and that proves disastrous.
Every scene, every character in "Six Degrees" captures the bizarre, self-destructive mood of New York today. Guare's brilliance is that he can make this disturbing portrait hilarious.
Even more impressive, he has turned this jumble of confused, frenetic voices into a kind of music. The kids' whining, their parents calculated archness, Paul's chameleon-like responses to their moods and needs - Guare shapes these voices, controls their rhythms so precisely that the play has the style, the irresistible momentum of musical theater.
The move to a larger theater has not impaired the sense of intimacy the superb cast projects. The major cast change is that Paul is played by Courtney B. Vance, who makes him a more thoughtful, sober and sobering character, a stronger foundation for a play that so eagerly risks losing its balance.
When his predecessor gave the splendid speech relating Holden Caulfield to the uses of imagination, he made it a virtuoso piece, almost as if he were jiving his hosts. Vance does it more straight-forwardly, trusting the power and truth of Guare's words. It makes the play itself seem more solid.
Stockard Channing seems even more assured in her stunning portrayal of the one society person who is moved by the fate of the young man they all see as victimizing them but who turns out to be their victim.
The awful children - Robin Morse, Gus Rogerson, Anthony Rapp and especially Evan Handler - are the same, all dazzlingly abrasive. Sam Stoneburner and Stephen Pearlman continue to give elegant portraits of smugness. Peter Maloney and Kelly Bishop remain strong as sophisticates so smart they are benighted.
John Cunningham manages to make the crass art dealer human. John Cameron Mitchell has an almost mystical authority as the boy who engineers Paul's excursion into society. Robert Duncan McNeil and Mari Nelson have compelling innocence as the only characters who suffer from his con schemes.
Jerry Zaks' direction seems to capture every nuance of Guare's brilliant script. "Six Degrees" takes the confusion of our time and transforms it into what a piece of theater should be - a celebration of the human imagination.
"How do we keep the experience?" asks an anguished Stockard Channing, fighting back anger and tears near the end of "Six Degrees of Separation," the John Guare play that reopened in a new and larger Lincoln Center theater, the Vivian Beaumont, with a new co-star, Courtney B. Vance, last night.
Ms. Channing, in the role of an Upper East Side matron named Ouisa Kittredge, has just had the experience of her life: A young black man, posing as the son of Sidney Poitier, bamboozled his way into her home, family and heart and then, just as abruptly, vanished. Ouisa is not the same person she was before she met the impostor, who called himself Paul and is played by Mr. Vance. The encounter has jolted her out of her insular sophistication, sending her through "new doors opening into other worlds." But now she fears her cathartic reawakening may be slipping away to become merely another New York dinner-party anecdote "with no teeth and a punch line you'll mouth over and over for years to come." And if Ouisa has learned anything from Paul, it is that she wants to hold onto experience, to connect at last to the people around her, to stop being one of "these human jukeboxes spilling out these anecdotes."
Returning to "Six Degrees" nearly five months after its premiere, I worried whether it, too, might have been reduced by time to glib anecdotal status. Certainly this play, like any other hot ticket on the New York cultural scene, has been masticated by le tout Manhattan. People dined out on Mr. Guare's smartest lines all summer. The real-life con man whose 1983 scams inspired the play resurfaced in the press, and so did his prominent victims. The work's meaning has been debated by all manner of pundits, its creators have been exhaustively interviewed, its title has passed into the language. To be a full-fledged New York phenomenon, "Six Degrees" lacks only a strong critical backlash, and surely this, too, will come.
But not here. Watching "Six Degrees" again, with full knowledge of where its laughs are and where its bodies (three of them) are buried, I found it as funny and moving and provocative as ever -- still a fresh experience, not last season's calcified hit. Part of this is a tribute to the high quality of the production's transfer. The director, Jerry Zaks, and the set designer, Tony Walton -- the only team ever to have consistent success in the vast Beaumont -- have duplicated their initial staging meticulously, re-creating the same living-room intimacy they achieved downstairs at the tiny Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater and sacrificing nothing, including the use of the auditorium's first row as a bench for the temporary parking of the large supporting cast. Mr. Vance, younger than James McDaniel, his predecessor as Paul, proves a fine addition to the company, revealing a wit and a sexual edge that had not surfaced in his impassioned previous appearances in plays by August Wilson and Athol Fugard.
If Mr. Vance alters the chemistry of "Six Degrees" slightly, it is to accentuate the bond that inexorably develops between Paul and Ouisa -- a connection at once emotional, intellectual and erotic linking two such seemingly disparate characters as a poor, gay, young black man of unknown identity and a rich, WASP-y, middle-aged wife with a pedigree. The emphasis helps focus the play, perhaps because above all else, above even its hilarious jokes about money and art and the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, "Six Degrees" is an unlikely, chaste, covert love story in which Paul and Ouisa reach out for each other as surely as do those hands in Ouisa's beloved Sistine Chapel. The real if buried plot of "Six Degrees" deals not with Paul's fraudulent identity but with the authenticity of spirit that allows him and Ouisa to break through those degrees of separation that isolate people in a dehumanizing metropolis overpopulated by all kinds of phonies.
It's possible as well that the raised temperature between Paul and Ouisa has contributed to the evening's other new phenomenon -- the growth in Stockard Channing's performance. This actress, who was merely brilliant in June, now cuts so close to the bone that she straddles the territory between heart-stopping fragility and comic radiance that theater lovers talk about when they remember Laurette Taylor in "The Glass Menagerie" or Irene Worth's Ranevskaya in "The Cherry Orchard." In fact, I found myself thinking of Ranevskaya's farewell to her ancestral estate when, in the final moments of "Six Degrees," Ms. Channing, alone in a dim spotlight and dissolved in the spiritual memory of a visit to the Sistine Chapel, slowly swivels her head so that her glassy, imploring eyes can take in every corner of the audience. Some actresses, one is often told, have a greatness that demands a large house. Here -- in our own time, incredibly enough -- is one of them.
As Ms. Channing would surely be the first to agree, great acting cannot exist in a vacuum. The rest of the ensemble, led by John Cunningham's miraculously human account of Ouisa's patrician yet hustling art-dealer husband, is as sharp as ever, if not sharper: Sam Stoneburner as a visiting South African magnate, Kelly Bishop and Peter Maloney as a warring married couple, Stephen Pearlman as an obstetrician with a deceptively avuncular bedside manner. While all of these figures could be cartoons, each is rewarded by playwright and actor with compassion and a burst of color.
In the flat-out funny roles of children -- riotous cameos that recall Mr. Guare's collaboration on "Taking Off," the Milos Forman film about 1960's runaways -- Evan Handler, Robin Morse, Gus Rogerson and John Cameron Mitchell remain some of the most articulately hostile teen-agers ever to pass through the East's finer institutions of higher eductation. As their ingenuous opposites -- a couple of starry-eyed young innocents who travel to New York from Utah in search of acting careers -- Robert Duncan McNeill, another cast newcomer, and Mari Nelson play crucial, late-evening roles in switching the play's tone from the farcical high pitch of a hip "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" to that of its final chapters of tragic death and final visions of ecstatic rebirth.
The play that nurtures these and the other good actors each night rewards repeat visitors just as plentifully. Running only 90 minutes in one act that Mr. Zaks takes at a breakneck pace, "Six Degrees" is extraordinarily dense with ideas and feelings that can be picked apart and analyzed individually after the fact but that somehow coalesce into an elegant composition on stage.
If there is one image that dominates, it can be found in the play's final words -- "It's painted on two sides." The line refers to a Kandinsky canvas that twirls above the action in the Kittredge home, but it emblemizes the two-sided metaphors of a play that pointedly defines schizophrenia as "a horrifying state" where what is inside the psyche "doesn't match up with what's out there." In the fractionalized New York of "Six Degrees," the bust town that followed the boom town of "Bonfire of the Vanities," families, classes, races and sexes are all divided, just as each individual is divorced from the imagination that might yet be his means to introspection and salvation.
As that Kandinsky canvas hangs above "Six Degrees," so does Kandinsky's artistic principle, recited early on, that there can be a "harmony of form" in a painting only if the choice of each object is dictated by "a corresponding vibration in the human soul." Mr. Guare yearns against all odds for the same redemptive harmony from his New Yorkers. The set for his play is a series of doorways -- some at ground level leading to the rooms of a Fifth Avenue apartment, others above opening to the characters' dreams, all of them bordered by the gilt frames of art. What prevents this searing comedy from becoming another disposable New York anecdote is that, for all the perfection of Mr. Guare's own art within those frames, it is ourselves, imperfect and bloodied and as hungry as Ouisa for that transcendent vibration, whom we meet once we walk through those doors.