Rachel Klem's zippy, antic but concise staging of John Guare's rapidly aging but still invigorating 1990 Pulitzer-winning comedy, Six Degrees of Separation, wakes up a piece that could easily fall flat on its face in these days of recession. Very much an '80s play—with nods to Gorbachev, Dean & DeLuca and sun-dried tomatoes—it both satirizes and valorizes the moneyed aesthete's life. Six Degrees is the genial uncle of Yasmina Reza's sour, empty Art, and Guare, among the most solicitous of modern American dramatists, draws you right into his colorful bourgeois world. It's a wonderful play.
But be warned: It's a con. The handsome, charming young African-American Paul (J. Alphonse Nicholson) shows up bleeding at the Upper East Side apartment of Ouisa (Lenore Field) and Flan (David Sennett) Kittredge and convinces them he's Sidney Poitier's son. Soon he's got some of their money and, more dangerously, lots of their trust and credulity. Even after the lie is exposed, Ouisa still sees in him the bright, good-hearted Harvard kid he had her convinced he was, rather than the hustler he is.
The catch is that the Kittredges are also hustlers: They specialize in the private resale of great paintings, and we first see them gleefully extracting $2 million from a friend (Larry Evans) in order to help them broker a Cézanne deal. That the Kittredges' hustle has to do with art (there's a suggestively two-faced Kandinsky that hangs, literally, over the play) makes perfect sense: Art's the most attractive con there is, nowhere more so than in the theater, where your waiter by day reappears by night as a character in Chekhov—or Guare.
Klem's direction—of a cast that is without a weak link—abets the con. The 90 intermissionless minutes zoom by so quickly that you can't stop to see how you're being had. That's shrewd, because Guare's philosophical noodlings are themselves mild snow jobs, light, middlebrow dustings over juicy, tawdry action. Paul's long riff on imagination never quite comes together, more a series of metaphors than an idea; and Ouisa's late, famous, titular monologue somehow seems to land the play in the wrong field—interesting, but detachable from what Guare is actually writing about. That bait and switch may be the play's slickest hustle.