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Theatre in Review: Six Degrees of Separation/The Antipodes

Top: Allison Janney, Corey Hawkins. Bottom: Josh Charles, Phillip James Brannon. Photos: Joan Marcus

Two new productions focus, in entirely different ways, on the importance of storytelling in helping each of us define who we are. Six Degrees of Separation (in its first Broadway revival, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre) is John Guare's comic riff on a series of true events, in which a young man, pretending to be the son of the actor Sidney Poitier, conned his way into some very well-furnished Manhattan living rooms. In Guare's version, the tale is told by Ouisa and Flan, whose planned night out with a well-heeled client -- Flan is a private art dealer -- is interrupted by the arrival of Paul, who is bleeding from a stab wound. A total stranger to Ouisa and Flan, Paul claims to know their children from boarding school; before long, he has taken over the kitchen, whipping up an impromptu meal and entrancing them, and Geoffrey, their guest, with accounts of his globetrotting life with Sidney. By evening's end, Flan has advanced him fifty dollars and Ouisa has invited to him to stay the night.

That these are bad decisions becomes clear when, early the next morning, Paul is discovered having sex with a male hustler. He flees, but soon other couples turn up, all linked by the fact that their children are friends from school and all have been taken in by Paul. Intrigued -- especially by the fact that he takes little or nothing from his marks -- Ouisa determines to find out the truth about Paul, in the process exposing a series of connections and coincidences that give the play its now-famous title.

How time flies: When it opened in 1990, Six Degrees of Separation was hailed as the play of the moment, capturing the essence of Manhattan life in all its insularity and class divisions. Seen today, its portrait of a world without social media and smartphones makes it seem as dated as Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. There's nothing wrong with that, but for the fact that, deprived of its novelty, one sees more clearly the shaky construction of Guare's script. It's not just the running gag about the musical Cats -- Paul insists his "father" is going to direct the film version, and soon Ouisa and Flan are, implausibly, angling to be cast as extras -- so much as the idea that Paul is quickly transformed from an apparent street thug into a charmer who retains vast amounts of information about people whom he has never met and possesses gourmet cooking skills to boot. Also, part of Paul's con is that he has been robbed of his wallet and school thesis, a (plagiarized) argument about The Catcher in the Rye, with which he entrances his hosts; would anyone who had just lost the only copy of such a document really shrug it off so easily? That Ouisa and Flan don't notice this makes them look unnecessarily gullible.

Guare's comic dialogue still sparkles, but Trip Cullman's direction presses for laughs, discounting the sadness at the play's center. Some performances disappoint: Allison Janney's Ouisa is full of WASP hauteur, along with a certain chilliness that undermines the play's point: Her emotional connection to Paul -- a kind of displaced maternal concern -- is a necessary condition for Ouisa's coming to understand that her way of life is an empty one; without this, she comes off merely as a rather steely matriarch. As Paul, Corey Hawkins -- who also rushes through many of his speeches -- seems too old to be a contemporary of Ouisa and Flan's undergraduate children. The latter -- indeed, most of the young people in the play -- are generally overplayed, their hostility to the older generation quickly becoming shrill and grating.

On the plus side, John Benjamin Hickey is fine as Flan, whose genial manner masks a nagging fear that he and Ouisa are living beyond their means. There are also nice contributions from Michael Countryman and Lisa Emery as feuding marrieds; Ned Eisenberg as a doctor taken in by Paul; Colby Minifie as Ouisa and Flan's daughter, who unravels the mystery; Chris Perfetti as the young man who accidentally sets the plot in motion; and Michael Siberry as Flan's wealthy client, a South African, who bears the burden of some of the play's now-uncomfortable race jokes.

Mark Wendland's set, which places much of Ouisa and Flan's apartment behind a scrim, perhaps to heighten the notion that this a memory play, and which undergoes a major and unnecessary shift, seems awfully complicated; I was frequently reminded of the elegant simplicity of Tony Walton's design for the original production. Ben Stanton's lighting, Clint Ramos' costumes, and Darron L. West's sound are all solid, as are Lucy Mackinnon's minimal projections.

Many popular or critically acclaimed plays go through an awkward phase a couple of decades after their premiere, often seeming dated, only to emerge later as mordant time capsules, capturing the way we lived then. This may yet happen with Six Degrees of Separation, but it will require more sensitive handling than it gets here. Near the end, a bitterly unhappy Ouisa insists that what she now recognizes as a profound experience not be made into an anecdote; in this production, it comes across as an anecdote.

The people in The Antipodes, now playing at the Signature Theatre, tell stories for a living; Annie Baker's latest is set in the writer's room of a new -- and, as of yet, unconceived -- television series. That it is meant to be some kind of fantasy drama is apparent in the dictum proposed by Sandy, the producer/showrunner: No dwarves or elves or trolls. Sandy, played with an overly bright-eyed look by Will Patton, then lays out his usual working method. Everyone around the table is to tell a story about him or herself, in an attempt to get their creative juices flowing. The first is to be a description of one's first sexual experience, and the tales that come out are funny, sad, and shocking, further evidence of Baker's Scheherazade-like skills.

Sandy intends the room to be a safe space, but, as the months wear on and no viable concept is generated, it becomes more like a hostage situation, especially when Sandy, overwhelmed with personal problems, stops showing up and a storm leaves everyone more or less trapped in the building. Once again, Baker works her pointillist magic: Giving us only a handful of details, we grasp the network of relationships and power plays unfolding underneath the largely deadpan action, among them the firing of a writer who doesn't play well with Sandy; the singular, uncomfortable position held by Eleanor, the only woman in the room; and the multitude of unspoken, uncomfortable truths hidden in the platitudes uttered by Sarah, Sandy's assistant. A conference with Max, the show's producer, conducted via the Internet, is a little marvel of compression; everyone wears special VR-style glasses so they can see Max, but the connection is so bad that most of his words are obscured by static; nevertheless, by the end of the meeting, it is clear that the project is in deep trouble.

Baker has a highly sympathetic director in Lila Neugebauer, who highlights each telling detail with laser-like intensity; in her hands, even a seemingly banal bit, such as Eleanor asking the others if they'd like a probiotic pill, gets a huge laugh for the way it lays bare the group's dynamic. The cast could not be better, especially Phillip James Brannon, who brings a haunting quality to a seemingly rambling speech about the creation of the world; Josh Charles, his socked feet up on the table, making his place as Sandy's favorite; Josh Hamilton as a new hire trapped in red tape that keeps him from getting paid; Danny Mastrogiorgio, deftly delivering a beyond-bizarre first-sexual-experience tale; and Nicole Rodenburg, superb as the ever-cheery, always-evasive Sarah.

But in her other workplace plays, like Circle Mirror Transformation, The Aliens, and The Flick, achieved her effects by adhering scrupulously to a hyperreal surface presentation; in these plays, deeper (and often darker) truths emerge from seemingly banal conversations filled with pregnant pauses. Even in last season's John, which gets into metaphysical waters, the hint of the supernatural was properly constrained by a high-resolution surface naturalism. The Antipodes breaks away from this approach -- not entirely successfully -- making it easier to resist. For instance, it makes no sense that the team would meet for months on end without coming up with a single workable concept; in addition, Baker introduces bizarre elements, including some kind of Native American spirit ceremony, surreptitiously conducted when most of the characters are asleep, and a weird ailment that is best not described here. As a result, despite the highly disciplined production, The Antipodes seemingly lacks the rigor of Baker's earlier works. At one hour and forty minutes, it is one of her shorter plays, but at times it drags in a way The Flick and John do not.

Laura Jellinek's conference room set is as soulless as anyone could wish for and it is lit with the right institutional quality by Tyler Micoleau. Kaye Voyce's costumes -- especially the parade of matching outfits worn by Sarah, which clue us in to the play's time shifts -- are spot-on. Bray Poor's sound design is especially successful during that hapless conference with Max.

If you're a Baker fan, you won't want to miss The Antipodes, but you may do well to adjust your expectations. Every writer's career has its ups and downs, and we may very well look back on this play as a transitional work. Baker's many strengths are on display, but this time they aren't put to their best use. -- David Barbour

(1 May 2017)

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