Here are three reasons (with more to come) why you should absolutely, definitely see Six Degrees of Separation at Kennedy's Down Under: 1. It's funnier than the movie. 2. It's more imaginative than the movie. 3. It's not a movie. On occasion, the right words, actors, and director all come together to create magic in the theater, and this is one of those times.
Playwright John Guare's title -- referring to a theory that every person on the planet is separated by only six people -- has gained prominent status in our language, almost vying to replace "Small world, ain't it?" But it's easy to forget that the play behind the title is much more complex than a catchphrase, touching with edgy humor on art, literature, race relations, homophobia, "star-fucking," and the role of imagination in identity.
It's all based on a real series of events. In 1983, a young African American con artist named David Hampton finagled his way into the homes of wealthy New Yorkers by posing as the son of actor Sidney Poitier and claiming to be a college buddy of his hosts' children. Once inside, he helped himself to various valuable household items.
In Guare's retelling, the supposed Paul Poitier is less interested in theft than in carving out a fantasy life for himself. As he posits at one point, "Imagination is the passport we use to take us into the real world." Stumbling into the luxurious apartment of art dealer Flan Kittredge and his wife Ouisa after supposedly getting mugged in Central Park, the erudite Paul diffidently drops his "father" Sidney's name and shares Ivy League anecdotes about the Kittredge children.
Soon, Paul is whipping up an impromptu pasta dinner, deconstructing the link between violence and The Catcher in the Rye, and implying that his dad will stop by to visit. Totally smitten, the starstruck couple invite Paul to bed down for the night. But the delicate house of cards collapses when Ouisa discovers that Paul has brought a male street hustler up to his room. After Flan and Ouisa learn that friends in their tony circle have also been visited by this mysterious young man, the search begins to unearth who Paul really is.
At this point, the separation mentioned in the title takes on new meaning. Instead of showing how little separates all of us, Guare reveals the multiple degrees of separation that exist among people who are only an arm's length away. Straights don't get gays, whites don't get blacks, and parents most certainly don't get the alien beings their grown children have become.
Hanging like a sword of Damocles above the proceedings is a slowly rotating, double-sided Kandinsky painting, an abstract symbol of the duality present in every action. (Do the Kittredges welcome Paul into their home out of generosity or because they want to suck up to his famous father? Well, yes.) Later, Paul switches identities when meeting new marks, leading to a tragic outcome and an endgame that shows how we rely on imagination to sustain ourselves and our relationships.
The Charenton Theater group, headed by James Mango, gets major props for producing an exhilarating rendition of this challenging and intellectually intricate work. The 17-member company, collectively a smoothly meshing machine, is individually inventive and believable.
Jacqi Loewy and Jeffrey Grover are ideal as the crisply upper-crust Ouisa and Flan, wearing the casual arrogance of their wealth and status easily, like a favorite silk robe. And even though they are superficially warm, when Ouisa simply and honestly asks Paul to "Tell us about our children," you almost shiver from the chill of her detachment. These characters also narrate some of the events, which they do with such chummy aplomb, you feel like an old friend ensconced in one of their Chippendale chairs.
In the linchpin role of Paul, Sean Booker exudes ingratiating confidence (the first job of any con man) while also revealing his character's raw lower-class roots and smoldering vulnerabilities. It's a fascinating balancing act that Booker executes with exceptional style.
The boxcar-like dimensions of Kennedy's theater space are used innovatively by director Sarah May, employing a three-quarter stage that brings the audience practically into the actors' laps. In addition, performers regularly pop out of the audience to hold props and deliver lines. The one small quibble with May's fine interpretation is that, at the end, Ouisa's decisions regarding Paul seem less wrenching than they should have been.
Woven through the myriad joys of this production is Guare's concise, pointed language. To wit, a rich white South African friend of the Kittredges explains his country's approach to the native population: "One must educate the black workers, of course. And you know you've succeeded when they kill you." Great stuff.
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