Six Degrees of Separation

By Philip Pearce

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, now on view at the Western Stage is 36 years old but doesn’t show its age. John Guare has created 90-minutes of powerful, shifting human relationships and some ideas that are just as disturbingly relevant today as they were in 1980. If that suggests a lot of characters sitting around talking abstractions, think again. The power of the piece lies in the way its ideas emerge directly from the events that arise and sometimes explode moment by moment on stage.

The plot is based on a true story. Friends of playwright Guare told him how they were once duped into offering hospitality and a bed for the night to a young man they didn’t know was busy conning and robbing couples all over Manhattan with the story that he was the son of Sidney Poitier. That’s exactly what happens in Guare’s script as Flan Kittredge, a New York art dealer, and his wife Ouisa, open the door of their Park Avenue apartment to a personable young black man named Paul. He’s nursing a bleeding stomach wound he says he’s just sustained in a Central Park mugging. He’s persuaded their doorman to let him seek help from the two of them because he’s a classmate and close friend of their Ivy League son and daughter. He is so familiar with the names and habits of their children, with the detailed layout and furniture of the family apartment, with the facts of their family life that Flan and Ouisa accept the visitor’s credentials, bind up his wound, warm to his shy admission that he is the son of Sidney Poitier, feed him and bed him down in their son’s room for the night. Then, as in the real life story that sparked the play, it is only when the charming guest is wakened for an early morning appointment with his film actor dad that their humiliating gullibility explodes in the faces of his Good Samaritan host and hostess.

The play’s toughest role is the artful and deceptive Paul. He is a performance artist, a pretender of such artistry and skill that we know nothing yet everything about him. Nothing of his biography apart from the fact that his first name probably is Paul. Everything about him that matters is that he reveals a personality that will go to any lengths to win love and an acceptance as warm and fulfilling as they are transitory and manufactured. He’s a thief and a sponger, yes, but the money and the booze and the nice clothes are only props and costumes in a drama in which he is always the appealing central character. It’s a tough and complex acting assignment and Drew Lee Davis-Wheeler does well by it. He projects a tough and cocky assurance that collapses in tearful terror when his dreams are exposed for what they really are. If he is a bit less convincing with Paul as the sneaky seducer, he may be the victim of a face and form that too easily suggest that in himself he‘s a direct and honest guy.

Katherine Adrian and David Koppel play the beleaguered Kittredges with high energy and intelligence. Koppel’s successful businessman manner fits neatly into Guare’s ironic picture of an art salesman more excited about earning big bucks than promoting or discovering important art. Adrian catches the sympathy and vulnerability underneath Ouisa‘s Park Avenue panache. She alone remains caught up in Paul’s amoral artistry even after it is exposed and reported to the police. She discovers ruefully that she cares more about this creative imposter than for her spoiled kids Tess and Woody (the comically enraged Ashley Hibbs and the roaring, vindictive Thomas Perry) who meet news of their parents’ gullibility with explosions of full-throated contempt. Woody’s fury is directed at the fact that Flan and Ouisa have dared to give his favorite pink shirt to their discredited houseguest, and Tess loudly plans a thoroughly unsuitable marriage just to show her folks how much she hates them. Adrian and Koppel keep the pace fast and exciting, occasionally at the expense of dialogue that tends to whizz by too quickly for clarity.

Dennis Beasley’s direction is a major treasure of the production. He shapes the scenes to fit the shifts and changes of Guare’s tightly crafted script. When characters face one another in an actual room, actors are spaced in a design that creates the room. When we enter the minds of Flan or Ouisa, adroit lighting (the work of Theodore Michael Dolas) focuses on whoever is sharing their thoughts. When the senior Kittredges confront their children miles away at different universities, Beasley eschews geography and seats the combatants opposite each other in a formation that clearly expresses their antagonism.

David Parker’s set design provides a second major high point, notably in a huge backdrop consisting of an enlargement of a “double” painting by Kandinsky, which the resourceful Paul knows in advance is a prevailing art treasure of the Kittredge household. It’s “double” in that it’s painted on both sides of a stiffened canvas and it swivels from one surface to the other, depending on which image you want to view. Dominating the set, it suggests the equivocal shifts in values that surface as the play progresses.

One of another pair of socialite friends taken in by the wily Paul is a man named Larkin (an excitable James Brady) who keeps insisting “there’s always two sides to every question,” against the protests of his wife Kitty (a chirpy and fashionable Joelle McGrath). Parker’s design takes up the two-sided theme by serving not just as backdrop but as a big, hinged doorway through which characters enter from or exit to other parts of the apartment.

Brady and McGrath are joined by Ron Perez as another victim of Paul’s chicanery named Dr. Fine, who’s even more gullible than Ouisa Kittredge and by Josh Kaiser as Fine’s son Ben, whose sophomoric disdain is every bit as raucous as that of the junior Kittredges. With the introduction of an accommodating tourist couple from Utah, acted with power and pathos by Gabriel Alvizo and Meagan Root, the dark comedy of urban confidence trickery spills over into tragedy.

The title refers to a theory of philosopher Frigyes Karinthy that everyone of us is linked, if we could but trace the connections, to everyone else on the planet by only six common acquaintances. It’s an idea Ouisa touches on in a significant soliloquy during a struggle to learn how the fugitive Paul is able to know so much about the lives and rituals of each of the people he cons. Interesting as that six degrees theory doubtless is, I still wonder whether it expresses the fundamental theme of this fascinating play, which isn’t just about making connections, but about how they get made.

When Paul paints the picture of his supposed mugging, he insists he’s less distressed by the loss of his wallet and money than of his supposed Harvard thesis. Its subject, he says, is the power of imagination as a controlling theme of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. It’s that and more in Guare’s award winning script. When Paul disappears into the anonymity of confused police bureaucracy, Ouisa is bereft of someone who seemed to float above the conventional standards of her upper class family life not through his traits of character but through his active and inspired exploitation of human imagination.

It’s an uninterrupted hour and a half of exciting adult modern theater. Not much to disturb or offend when it comes to the dialogue, but there’s one significant sequence of nudity that shocks because that’s what it’s meant to do.

You can see for yourself the next two weekends at Western Stage Studio Theater.