A scene from Theater Latte Da’s production of Six Degrees of Separation. Photo by Dan Norman.
Phoniness, lack of human connectedness and class distinctions are the prevalent themes in John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation, which opened last weekend at Theater Latte Da. The play originally debuted on Broadway in 1990 and was nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for Best Play. Peter Rothstein directs a crisply paced and thoughtful production of Guare’s play.
The play begins with the well-to-do, but temporarily asset-depleted, couple of Ouisa and Flanders Kittredge hosting a wealthy friend named Geoffrey. Geoffrey is an industrialist from South Africa, which during the play is still in the midst of Apartheid. Flanders is an art dealer who is in critical need of acquiring an expensive painting for resale to Japanese buyers. The Kittredges need to persuade Geoffrey to invest $2 million to complete the acquisition. As their evening begins, they are interrupted by a young, well-dressed but bleeding young man named Paul who has just been stabbed. Paul claims he goes to Harvard with the Kittredge’s children and sought help at their place because he was mugged. With a little bit of first aid, Paul proceeds to flatter and charm the Kittredges and Geoffrey.
In addition to attending college with their children, Paul reveals that he is the son of Sidney Poitier. A running joke in the play is that Poitier is directing the movie version of the musical Cats. With Paul’s charm and his promise to make all three of them extras in Cats, Flanders is able to obtain the necessary monetary commitment from Geoffrey. The Kittredges insist that Paul stay the night, but the Kittredges’ wonderful evening crashes with a thud the next morning when, in a very jarring scene, they discover that Paul has brought a naked street hustler into their home.
The Kittredges still hang on to the thought that Paul is Poitier’s son until they learn that their friends had a similar evening and similarly expect to be cast in Cats. The couples contact the police and find at least one more victim. They also confirm that their children do not know Paul. Despite his culture mannerism and appearance, it is learned that that Paul was also a street hustler. He became involved with an MIT student who went to high school with the victims’ children and who schooled Paul in the ways of the well-to-do as well as the known gossip about these affluent parents. However, Paul’s phony persona takes a tragic turn when he takes advantage of a young, poor couple who befriended him.
The play is set in for the late 1980s and its datedness seems quaint. No one uses cell phones and, more importantly, there is no Internet whereby the Kittredges could quickly verify Paul’s connection to Sidney Poitier. Instead, Ouisa must go to a secondhand bookstore to find an out-of-date Poitier biography to verify that Paul was not Poitier’s son.
JuCoby Johnson plays a charming and convincing Paul, who is either a) the ultimate con artist, or b) so desperate to be in the upper class that he starts to believe his own con. Sally Wingert shines in the role of Ouisa. She makes believable the fact that her character, despite knowing of Paul’s deception, has a closer emotion bond to this stranger than she has with her own children, or even her husband. Mark Benninghofen, as Flanders, captures the essence of a man who is primarily interested in his bottom line and has no sympathy for Paul, but who can’t say no to his wife when she wants them to pick up Paul and help him turn himself into the police. Jay Albright, as Dr. Fine (another of Paul’s victims), brings some welcome humor to the play as he relates his encounter with Paul.
When I first saw that this show was part of Theater Latte Da’s season, I assumed it was a musical version of the play. However, there is no musical version of the play – at least not yet – but director Peter Rothstein successfully takes an innovative approach for integrating music by having the actors perform music both as background for certain scenes and during the transitions.
Kate Sutton-Johnson’s set design is another highlight in the show. The set displays a lavish, but realistic upper class living room surrounding by art including a Kandinsky constructivist painting in the center of the stage. It was in great contrast to the bare and raw staging that has been more commonly used at the Ritz Theater.
Staging a non-musical is a significant directional change for Theater Latte Da, but, with a fine cast, it has proven to be a very successful direction. This production does justice to the many layers of Guare’s play.
Six Degrees of Separation plays through April 9 at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis.