‘Six Degrees of Separation’
Through Dec. 3
1742 Church St., N.W.
In just 90 minutes, John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” expertly exposes the gilded underbelly of social climbing Manhattan, a subject of widespread fascination.
The gay playwright’s 1990 work was inspired by the true story of a young man who insinuated himself into the lives of a wealthy New York couple by claiming he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier. In his play, Guare focuses on how even an imagined connection to star power can prompt some of the city’s elites to open their Fifth Avenue aeries and luxe brownstones to an unconnected kid who otherwise wouldn’t make it through their thresholds.
Currently playing at the intimate Keegan Theatre on Church Street, N.W., director Brandon McCoy’s “Six Degrees” starts off rushed before settling into a steady, more satisfying pace, effortlessly moving from funny scenes to more serious moments. McCoy, a Keegan company member, has assembled an able cast and design team to bring to life Guare’s well-spun yarn.
Told in retrospect by ambitious socialite Ouisa Kittredge (Susan Marie Rhea) and her husband Flan (Ray Ficca), a savvy independent art dealer who makes a killing flipping masterpieces, the actions kicks off when the doorman appears with Paul (Ryan Jammal Swain), a 20-something African American who’s been violently robbed. He claims to know the Kitteridge’s children from Harvard and does, in fact, know a lot of about their family.
When Paul explains that he’s at loose ends until the following morning when his movie star father Sidney Poitier arrives in town, Ouisa and Flan invite him to stay. Paul quickly charms the Kittredges and their dinner guest Geoffrey (nicely underplayed by Kevin Adams), a rich South-African client, with his impromptu culinary skills and intelligence, easily making literary references and expressing ideas on the power of the imagination. The middle-aged privileged white trio becomes further enthralled when Paul offers them walk-on parts in his father’s upcoming movie production of “Cats,” a musical they’d ordinarily dismiss as low brow.
But the giddy honeymoon soon ends when Ouisa and Flan are awakened by Paul and a stark-naked hustler (Josh Stricklin) he’s slipped in. Soon after, it’s revealed through Kittredge friends that Paul is neither an Ivy League nor Hollywood royalty. And, in fact, he has been dining out on these lies for some time. Through some amateur detective work involving some ingrate offspring (amusingly assayed by Ava Knox, Christian Montgomery and others), we learn Paul has been extensively coached on high society by a Kittredge acquaintance. Eager to enter that rarified world, Paul gladly traded his street cred for Park Avenue polish.
Like a good con artist, Paul knows his marks inside and out and knows just what to say. Swain nails his character’s insinuating appeal. And Rhea with furrowed brow and downturned smile skillfully captures Ouisa’s compassion and desperation to connect with someone outside her family. Ficca is marvelously smarmy as Flan.
Matthew Keenan’s spare and elegant set consists of a two-sided spinning Kandinsky and free-floating pieces of white flats that hang like disengaged puzzles pieces. Kristina Marie Marie’s costumes are spot on Upper East Side late-‘80s — part “Preppy Handbook” and part society fundraiser glitz.
After exiting chez Kittredge, Paul — forever on the make — finds refuge with a naïve couple of wannabe actors from Utah. But this time things turn ugly. Paul reaches out to Ouisa. During an intense phone call between the two — the play’s most tender scene — the unlikely pair’s vulnerabilities and innermost needs come to the fore.
The play’s title comes from the idea that any two people in the world, no matter how grand or humble, can be connected through only six other people. It’s a notion that Ouisa finds quite thrilling and Paul uses as a sort of passport, at least for awhile.