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‘Six Degrees of Separation’ review: Cons and connections still timely in revival

Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey in the

Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey in the revival of John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," at Barrymore Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

WHAT “Six Degrees of Separation”

WHERE Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St.

INFO $93-$163; 212-239-6200;

BOTTOM LINE Dazzling gem of social commentary is still timely.

When John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” opened in 1990, the scintillating tragic-comedy was scathing and wildly enjoyable, even though one of the targets — New York’s radical chic — had begun to feel just a bit easy to lampoon.

Now, 27 years later, this gem of social commentary and theatrical dazzle is having its first Broadway revival. And whatever this says about us today, the 90-minute spree of imagination and acute psychological observation feels even more timely right now.

Then again, we just may be exceptionally hungry these days for grown-up theater full of fast-talking satire, smart characters who share deep and foolish impressions about class, race, the big-ticket art world, apartheid, gay sex, Holden Caulfield and, even before cellphones, a growling pack of contemptuous adolescents.

The production, directed with compassion and merciless hilarity by Trip Cullman, has a wonderful, luxuriously large cast, with some actors dropping in for just a few perfectly pitched scenes.

Allison Janney and John Benjamin Hickey are blissfully snooty yet insecure high-end art dealers who live on the edge of financial disaster in their sleek Fifth Avenue high-rise. It has been impeccably designed by Mark Wendland with the hanging two-sided Kandinsky (get it? two faces) and a red scrim revealing many other rooms and the skyline.

They tell us their story, which Guare based on a real 1983 news item about a black con man scamming the Manhattan rich. Then again, maybe they’re telling the police or the newspaper society pages.

One evening, while entertaining a white South African investor (Michael Siberry), the couple opened the door to Paul, a well-dressed, well-informed young black man (Corey Hawkins, a riveting mixture of smooth and rough). He claims to have been mugged, knows convincing details about their children at, ahem, Harvard and says he’s Sidney Poitier’s son.

The writing is giddy with the excitement of ideas, some intentionally bogus, some inspirational. Guare, our master romantic poet of absurdity, plays back and forth with time and with our feelings for these people, the conned and the con man. At times, characters stop the action to fill us in with informative asides.

Yet, for all the back-and-forth, the interruptions and philosophical tangents, the play and production speed along with both elasticity and tight discipline. We are left to wonder about all the Pauls, street kids with lost potential, and about how people — maybe even six at a time — exist to connect in the world. As one character says, “Imagination is a gift that makes self-examination bearable.” So is John Guare.

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