It’s 1990 all over again in “Six Degrees of Separation,” a period-faithful revival of the John Guare play -- based on real events -- about a clever con artist who convinces an erudite Upper East Side couple that he’s the son of Sidney Poitier.
Allison Janney, who is as skilled in drama as she is in comedy, leads the cast as privileged Ouisa Kittredge, whose small dinner party with husband Flan (John Benjamin Hickey) is interrupted by the arrival of a young man with a minor stab wound who claims to be a Harvard classmate of her children.
Corey Hawkins, whose TV run in “24: Legacy” recently ended, is the aspirational Paul, a character based on David Hampton, who in the decade prior did exactly what’s depicted here. One of the couples duped by Hampton was friendly with the playwright, who turned their story into “Six Degrees.”
The title, heard in a famous monologue at the drama’s end, comes from the idea that there are never more than six people connecting even the most far apart and dissimilar acquaintances -- as you know, prolific film actor Kevin Bacon was eventually roped into this phenomenon.
Here, Paul interrupts the Kittredges just as Flan is trying to finance the sale of a Cézanne painting. The interloper charms Ouisa, Flan and their wealthy guest from overseas with a story about how he was mugged while in town awaiting the arrival of his father, who is directing a film version of the musical “Cats.”
Ouisa and Flan want to present themselves as well-bred types who never think or talk about money and status, but in truth they're concerned with nothing but. They take quickly to Paul’s promise that he can make them extras in his dad’s project. In reality, Paul is just a quick study who targeted the Kittredges after seducing a young man who had a tenuous connection to the family … and their contact information.
Janney, currently of TV’s “Mom,” is a well-cast successor to Stockard Channing, who performed the role between 1990 and 1993 in four iterations: off-Broadway, Broadway, the West End -- and on film, opposite Will Smith. (Channing and Janney were both on “The West Wing,” which gives them a Bacon Number of 1 …)
It’s Hawkins who is the revelation as the deluded man so invested in his web of deceit that even he loses track of his identity.
A maternal-ish bond develops between Paul and Ouisa, who wants to aid him, even after his deception is revealed. The first indication -- and it’s a big one -- is when Ouisa finds her houseguest in bed with a hustler (James Cusati-Moyer, in a brief but memorable performance).
I found myself believing Hawkins when he explained to Ouisa that he took advantage of her hospitality only because she and Flan had made him happier than he’d ever been by allowing him into their world.
John Benjamin Hickey is great as the status-obsessed, acquisitive art dealer who can’t believe his wife has become enchanted by a petty criminal.
Trip Cullman’s direction is peppy. The action begins with a loud burst of the opening notes to "Blue Monday" by New Order. The college and prep school students from New England who arrive late in the drama -- and here threaten to steal the show with their loud, immature bursts -- are dressed in "Cosby Show" sweaters.
A replica of a double-sided Kandinsky painting talked about in the play is suspended above the cast, and the backdrop to the minimalist set is, simply, a blood-red wall. Knowing there’s a revival of “Cats” going on five blocks to the north lends an accidental relevancy and humor to the whole experience.
“Six Degrees of Separation,” through July 16 at the Barrymore Theatre, 243 W. 47th St. Tickets: $49 and up. Call 212-239-6200.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn