Theater for Grownups

Allison Janney and Corey Hawkins in John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation,” directed by Trip Cullman. | JOAN MARCUS

Satire typically does not age well. Particularly in the theater, as times, society, and fashions change, new targets emerge and once-pointed plays become arcane curiosities. Happily, that is not the case with the still-trenchant and thoroughly engaging revival of “Six Degrees of Separation.” Twenty-seven years ago, John Guare’s play was a wry commentary on New York society and the glamorous, brightly lit world people yearned to break into.

The play, however, takes on a particular edge in the current political climate, given that the plot is about a con man who, for a time, successfully dupes wealthy people into believing he’s the real deal. Flan Kittredge is a private art dealer, and his wife, Ouisa, is quite accustomed to their lux life on Fifth Avenue. Young Paul, claiming to having been mugged in Central Park, insinuates himself into their home, saying he is the son of Sidney Poitier, and even suggests that Flan and Ouisa might get cast as extras in his father’s upcoming movie of “Cats.” (Remember, it’s 1990 and “Cats” was in its eighth year on Broadway and a punch line for the cognoscenti.)

As it turns out, the Kittredges are not the only dupes Paul has taken in, and soon Poitier’s putative son is revealed as a liar who has gleaned bits of information he can use to make the adults think he really is a friend of their kids in order to gain entrée into their homes. When confronted, the kids will have none of it and, in several humorous scenes, let their parents know exactly how lame they are for being duped.

Three sophisticated shows with pleasures aplenty

Yet here we sit in 2017, a nation that has been taken in by a con man who repeatedly shows himself to be ignorant and blustering. The truth is that cons often work; as Mary Sunshine says in “Chicago,” “they’ll fall for it hook, line, and sinker because it’s what they want.” Indeed, one of the questions the play raises is whose con is better? Is Flan any different in his profession when he convinces people to spend millions of dollars for artwork than Paul is in trying to hustle a meal, a room for the night, and some kind of human connection? None of the characters in this play can really claim the moral high ground, despite their attempts.

It falls to Ouisa to raise the elemental human question of how we are all connected to each other — as she says — by a chain of no more than six other people. One of the reasons this play is so unsettling is that it raises questions about our relationships to one another that most people ignore, and are invested in ignoring, in their quotidian existence.

The engaging revival now at the Barrymore has been directed by Trip Cullman with crispness and a clear-eyed perception of the characters — in all their failures and foibles. It manages to be both sharp and warm, bringing us into the world and the characters, pricking at their pretensions and yet rendering them sympathetic.

John Benjamin Hickey plays Flan as a tightly strung gamesman, his surface ebullience hiding more craven manipulations of people and situations. Corey Hawkins is outstanding as Paul, who is lost and grasping at an identity and a place in the world. The sensitivity and depth of his performance makes him almost tragic. Allison Janney as Ouisa is the conflicted heart of the play. She is the soigné New York wife looking amazingly elegant in Clint Ramos’ costumes, but she reveals her ultimate and utter confusion about the deep separation between us given how very close we are to each other.

Kevin Kline in Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel at the St. James Theatre through July 2. | JOAN MARCUS

How lovely to see a comedy made for adults, where sophisticated absurdity and rapid-fire repartee create a diverting and delightful evening. Noel Coward’s 1942 play “Present Laughter” is getting a smashing revival on Broadway, starring Kevin Kline and featuring a cast of Broadway veterans wonderfully directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.

The play concerns an aging actor, Garry Essendine, whose chaotic and narcissistic life is full of satellite acquaintances, who are both frustrated with and reliant upon him, and dalliances with women who, literally in some cases, throw themselves at him.

The flimsy plotting ties together a series of set pieces and characters, including Garry’s ex-wife, his hard-bitten secretary, a smitten, doe-like ingénue, his managers, and more. Each scene is wonderfully crafted in true Coward style, with the cumulative effect being hilarity and delight as physical comedy and verbal bantering are seamlessly integrated.

Kline is at the top of his game as Garry. Always a wonderful comedian, his performance is expansive and larger-than-life, embellished with unforgettable grace notes of wit. Kate Burton, as Garry’s ex-wife, is a mixture of steel and style, and Kristine Nielsen as his seen-it-all secretary still manages to have a heart under her hard edge. As Garry’s life spins out of control on the eve of his leaving on a tour, the rest of the characters, including an earnest playwright, his conniving manager’s wife who wants to seduce Garry, all add to the escalating chaos until, like Charles Condomine in Coward’s “Blithe Spirit,” Garry’s only option is to cut and run. This splendid revival runs only until the beginning of July. Run out and see it.

Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole, and the company of Doug Wright, Scott Frankel, and Michael Korie’s “War Paint,” directed by Michael Greif. | JOAN MARCUS

The new musical “War Paint” may be self-consciously structured to give equal time to its subjects — Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein — what with Christine Ebersole and Patti LuPone, respectively, portraying them. But if the show, with a book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel, and lyrics by Michael Korie, is often a labored, dual biography about the rise of two titans of the cosmetics world, it is gorgeous to look at, and the show is tailor-made for the talents of the two leading ladies.

Arden and Rubinstein fought for their places in their business, competed fiercely against each other, enjoyed victories but also suffered setbacks, and had to do it at a time when women in businesses weren’t respected. Despite their success, they were still outsiders looking in when it came to New York society and, at the end of their careers, were both conscious of what their successes had cost them.

Ebersole and LuPone look and sound fantastic. Reveling in their talent is reason enough to see this show. If the score is at times uneven, it doesn’t stop either of them. These are actresses who know how to inhabit a song and a lyric with power and commitment. They each get an 11 o’clock number — a celebration of her stardom from Rubinstein and a meditation on being trapped within one’s brand, the color pink, for Arden.

Catherine Zuber’s costumes and David Korins’ sets are nothing short of spectacular, the perfect wrapping for this tale of guts and glamor. If the stars might sometimes be hampered by the book and score (which are not up to the same team’s brilliant work in “Grey Gardens”), Ebersole and LuPone’s talent, drive, and determination are more than enough to carry the day. Once again, what was true in life is certainly true in art.

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION | Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 253 W. 47th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed. Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $49-$149; or 212 -239-6200 | 90 mins., no intermission

PRESENT LAUGHTER | St. James Theatre, 246 W. 44th St. | Through Jul. 2: Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed. Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $59-$155; or 877-250-2929 | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission

WAR PAINT | Nederlander Theatre, 208 W. 41st St. | Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $75-$250 at or 877-250-2929 | Two hrs., 20 mins., with intermission