Monday, May 22, 2017

High Comedies: Six Degrees of Separation and Present Laughter

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins in Six Degrees of Separation. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The current Broadway revival of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation begins badly and doesn’t find its feet until its leading lady, Allison Janney, does – about two-thirds of the way through, during her reading of the speech that gives the play its title. The play, a brilliant high comedy, is about the way a young hustler named Paul disrupts the lives of a number of people whose paths he crosses, most (but not quite all) of whom belong to the New York elite of the last decade of the twentieth century. Paul is an outsider in every conceivable way: he’s black (race in this play equates to class), gay and homeless. When a moneyed M.I.T. undergraduate named Trent Conway picks him up on the streets of Boston and takes him home, Paul makes a deal with him – sex in exchange for information about the prep-school classmates in Trent’s address book, now enrolled at various Ivy League colleges. (Trent is delighted to furnish details: not only does he consider he’s getting fair return for the favor, but his sexuality has always made him feel like an outsider too; he fantasizes that he can turn Paul into such an appealing faux aristocrat that when Trent shows up on his arm everyone will just have to accept them both.) Then Paul presents himself at the doors of their parents, bleeding from a self-inflicted stab wound he says he incurred during a mugging, claiming to know their children. He also professes to be the son of Sidney Poitier, and all of the aristocrats whose homes he’s entered on false pretenses are sufficiently impressed to take him in for the night. Paul is a scam artist and a narcissist; he’s also, it turns out, delusional. He starts to believe he really is Sidney Poitier’s son, and then he believes his other invention: that he’s the illegitimate son of Flan Kittredge, the art dealer who, along with his wife Ouisa, shows him the most kindness. Six Degrees of Separation is about connection and imagination as well as class (a theme of all high comedy). But it isn’t centrally about Paul. He’s the catalyst whose interactions with those he comes across – Trent and the aspiring, adventure-seeking young actor from Utah, Rick (Rick and his wife Elizabeth also take Paul in, when they find him sleeping in Central Park) and the Kittredges – act in various ways on their imaginations. The protagonist of the play is Ouisa, who undergoes the most profound change as a result of meeting him.

Guare is far from being a realist, and nowhere is he more stylized than in his use of language, unless it’s in the crazy coincidences that propel his narratives. (It’s his way of shoring up his point about the connectedness of human beings: Six Degrees and Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the one-woman show she wrote for Lily Tomlin, are the two great contemporary American plays on this subject.) But I found the “theatricality” of Trip Cullman’s production excessive and artificial, and the fact that almost everyone on stage falls into caricature keeps us at a sharp remove from the characters. That’s especially true of Corey Hawkins, who plays Paul. Hawkins was very fine as Dr. Dre in the movie Straight Outta Compton, but he doesn’t convey much of a sense of this character. He isn’t charming or sexy (Will Smith, in the 1993 movie version, had both those qualities in abundance), and I had trouble linking his big speech about The Catcher in the Rye and the imagination to the speaker; Hawkins reads it as if were, well, somebody else’s argument. The speech, which Paul claims is his Harvard thesis, was actually lifted from a Groton commencement, but as we start to work out the truth about Paul we realize that the punch line – “To face ourselves. That’s the hard thing. The imagination. That’s God’s gift to make the act of self-examination bearable” – is both an ironic signpost to precisely what he’s incapable of and an invitation to others to reach their imaginations through him. That’s what he does to Rick, who can’t bear what he finds and kills himself, and Ouisa, for whom it opens up a new world.

Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Until the “six degrees” speech grounds her, Janney plays Ouisa as brassy and unsympathetic – largely because she seems, contrary to the way Guare has written the character, to lack real empathy. Janney, who played high comedy masterfully on TV’s The West Wing, would seem like ideal casting for this character, and since Cullman can’t resist reducing almost everyone to comic exaggeration, I assume he’s at least partly to blame for the problems in her performance. I didn’t care for Michael Siberry as the Kittredges’ stinking-rich South African friend Geoffrey or Colby Minifie as their daughter Tess or Chris Perfetti as Trent or Peter Mark Kendall as Rick (even though I’ve liked him in his recurring roles on The Americans and Chicago Med). The only actors in the supporting cast who make a strong positive impression are the reliable Ned Eisenberg as Dr. Fine, one of the adults Paul hoodwinks, and Cody Kostro as his son, who hates his father so much that his mere voice on the telephone sends him into an apoplectic rage. The other kids are funny, but Cullman coaches them to do altogether too much bellowing, and the other adult performers are merely adequate. That is, except for John Benjamin Hickey as Flan – Hickey is a splendid character actor who seems incapable of caricature. For some reason, though, he and Cullman seem to be suggesting that Flan is gay or at least bisexual, and though that isn’t implausible (we know that he and Ouisa’s relationship is post-sexual), it doesn’t add anything the play, and it provides Cullman with an excuse for two pieces of staging that aren’t plausible. At one point it looks as if Flan is about to plant a kiss on Paul (before he thinks better of it) and later, when Ouisa discovers a male hustler in Paul’s room early in the morning, the naked young man throws Flan down on the divan and leaps on top of him. Why do professional directors sometimes come up with the kind of dopey ideas that you expect from students working their way through an undergraduate directing class? Class this one with the “interpretations” of Tom in The Glass Menagerie as homosexual because we all know Tennessee Williams was.

I saw Six Degrees in its original incarnation at Lincoln Center in 1990, but that’s not the version that comes to mind whenever I think about it; there, too, the play towered above the production, except for Stockard Channing’s Ouisa, and James McDaniel (who later turned up as the captain on TV’s Homicide) was seriously miscast as Paul. It’s Fred Schepisi’s movie, with Channing and Donald Sutherland as Flan, that rings in my memory, and though I’m sure it’s unfair to everyone involved in the revival to make comparisons, it’s impossible not to. For one thing, the chorus of the women and men in the Kittredges’ social circle to whom they tell bits and pieces of the Paul story was such an inspired addition to the script (Guare wrote his own adaptation) that the play now feels poorer without it. At the end of the movie, after Ouisa laments the way we turn our experiences into anecdotes – her gloss on Paul’s “imagination” speech – she gets up and walks out on the fancy luncheon where she has been relating the last part of the story in order to put an end to her tendency to become a “human juke box.” Flan runs after her, panicked at her social behavior, and at the end of their tense exchange it seems clear that, having finally worked out that they are a bad match, she has walked out on their marriage too. But the play doesn’t end that way; it can’t because there’s no dramaturgical device that will allow it to. And the screenplay makes more of the Kittredges’ prize possession, the Kandinsky that’s painted on both sides, so that in the movie we understand that the two sides – chaos and control – are metaphors for Ouisa and Flan. It seems Guare hadn’t quite completed that thought when he wrote the play. There aren’t many movies that better the plays they’re based on, and in the two that come to mind, both also high comedies, the 1938 and 1940 films of Philip Barry’s Holiday and The Philadelphia Story, the improvements are a matter of trimming, not addition. Guare’s own screenplay for Six Degrees has the odd effect of making the original play feel a little like a blueprint.

Cobie Smulders and Kevin Kline star in Present Laughter. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Noël Coward wrote the role of the narcissistic, womanizing stage star Garry Essendine in Present Laughter for himself and played it in the original 1942 British production and again sixteen years later, though it was Clifton Webb who starred when it opened on Broadway in 1946. I’ve been lucky enough to catch Present Laughter once a decade: in 1997 on Broadway with Frank Langella, in 2007 at Boston’s Huntington Theatre with Victor Garber, and in its current Broadway revival with Kevin Kline. Langella is the best Essendine I can remember. (I saw Peter O’Toole play the part on TV when I was sixteen but that first encounter didn’t stick with me.) He made a fantastic comic entrance at the top of a staircase: awakened by the chatter of his domestics, his secretary and a young woman with whom he’d had a one-night stand the previous evening, he emerged from his bedroom in a cloud of disdain and viewed the stairs with something between world-weariness and sour apprehension, and then he turned the descent into a whole number. Langella overplayed magnificently; Kline, like Garber, chooses to underplay, but his comic finesse is a triumph.

Present Laughter isn’t a great Coward like Private Lives or Design for Living, but it’s outrageously funny at its best, and though the first scene of Moritz Von Stuelpnagel’s production lacks shape, it gets better as it goes along. And I think I was laughing too much in act two to pay much attention to the defects in rhythm if there were any. (The title is derived from Twelfth Night: “Present mirth hath present laughter,” from Feste’s song “O Mistress Mine.”) There are definitely defects in the cast, however, and they’re harder to miss. Some of the supporting players – Ellen Harvey as the chain-smoking Swedish housekeeper Miss Erickson, Tedra Millan as Daphne Stillington (the one-night stand) and especially Bhavesh Patel as the nutty aspiring playwright Roland Maule, who becomes obsessed with Garry – are shameless hams, and Cobie Smulders as Joanna, the unfaithful wife of Garry’s producer Henry Lyppiatt (Peter Francis James, in an elegant imitation of Simon Callow), lacks the requisite amorous charm to make the first-act curtain, Joanna’s seduction of Garry, convincing. Kristine Nielsen plays Garry’s long-suffering, tart-tongued secretary, Monica Reed, in an unfortunate chopped coiffe, and though she knows exactly what to do with her lines, the weird Brechtian flourishes that have made her so memorable in Christopher Durang’s plays comes across in Coward as mugging. By comparison, Matt Bittner as Essendine’s valet Fred – whose careless treatment of his conquests appears to emulate his master’s like Valmont’s servant in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, though not so heartlessly – is pleasantly relaxed. It’s been years since I’ve seen Kate Burton (as Garry’s ex-wife Liz, still the only person who’s able to manage him) look so delighted to be on a stage, though if you can’t enjoy yourself playing opposite Kevin Kline, it’s probably time to retire. These two are terrific together. And Reg Rogers, as the director Morris Dixon, whose own love for Joanna is driving him mad, is almost as funny here as he was in the John Barrymore part in the 2009 Broadway revival of The Royal Family.

Garry and his entourage – Liz, Monica, Morris and Henry – are the inner circle who occupy the aristocracy in this high comedy, and aside from the servants, who maintain not only his digs but his lifestyle, they’re the only people who are truly welcome in his world. Of everyone else he’s tolerant only as long as they’re useful to him (which generally means sexually useful), and then he turns desperately to Liz to help get him unstuck from their clutches. He’s a highly entertaining misanthrope, like Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and without Whiteside’s sentimental side. The designers of this revival (David Zinn on sets, Susan HIlferty on costumes and Justin Townsend on lights) have made sure that it has all the class a high comedy from the era of classic twentieth-century high comedies should have. The show is a lark.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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