Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare. Directed by Anne Kauffmann.Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The human wok."
Tim Daly as Flan; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Nobody is completely honest with themselves or the ones close to them in John Guareís 1990 play, "Six Degrees of Separation," now playing on the Main Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Flan and Ouisa, the principal characters, accept a situation that even in 1990 would have been unthinkable for them. A young black man is carried into their elegant Fifth Avenue apartment one evening, a knife wound in his side, and left there by the doorman. They do not know him. He claims to know their children. They accept him at face value and in just a few minutes ask him to prepare a dinner for them and a wealthy guest from the scraps hidden in cupboards in their rarely used kitchen.
Knowing New York City in that period, it is completely unacceptable to assume that this could have happened in this way. Unacceptable. That is until you realize that Flan and Ouisa are upper-crust flim-flammers and it takes one to take one. Paul, the young man, is a mini-master at flim-flam flummery.
Like former President Jimmy Carter, Ouisa (short for Louisa), find herself secretly lusting in her heart. "I've looked on a lot of women with lust. I've committed adultery in my heart many times," said the southern Governor in 1976. Ouisa, bored with her unconventional yet highly ordinary marriage, feels this way in her heart about the boy, Paul, who claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier. And like the President she believes that This is something that God recognizes I will do--and I have done it--and God forgives me for it."
Whether or not her husband feels the same way about any of this is left for us to decide.
Six degrees is an existential expression of boredom with the sameness of things, a deliberate attempt to portray mankind as linked through no more than a few twists and turns of fate. The basic story is based on facts, the tale of one David Hampton who made the preposterous claim of relationship to the film star and persuaded many society folks to provide him temporary shelter, food and even a short loan of funds a decade earlier. What Guare does in the play is to make him not be the center of his own story, but to hand that over to Ouisa to express the broader issue of lust in the heart. "You canít bullshit a bullshitter, and Iím not a bullshitter" her husband flings at her, but she knows better: he is, she has, and so has Paul."
Margaret Colin as Ouisa; photo: Sam Hough
Ouisa is being played by a lovely Margaret Colin who knows ways to make any line mean twice what the author wrote. Through body language and facial twitches she can turn a "yes" into "well, maybe, but no" without half trying. As Ouisa opens up, like a peony would, revealing unthought of layers of beauty and confusion, Colin lets us in on her secrets slowly and surely. Wisely casting her in this central role brings clarity to a confusing story of people acting against type, accepting myths as realities and hopes as concrete facts.
Tim Daly plays her husband, Flan (for Flanders) Kittredge. Daly has a way with edginess that serves him well in this role. He can say one thing, loud and strong, physically support that meaning and yet somehow let us know that the flim-flam is underway. He manages to carry this through until near the end of the play when he realizes his wife stands on a precipice and just the slightest emotional shove would have her falling to her doom. As he plays this scene, Daly is clearly not running toward her with a life-line, and yet there is in his performance an odd sense of other-purpose and he sustains the concept of possibly rescuing her from her own worst instincts.
Paul is delivered complete and without flaws in the first half of the 93 minute one-act by Ato Essandoh. He cracks his own facade in the second half of the play, slowly crumbling into a not justifiable madness. In doing so he robs his character of believability and that makes it harder for us to accept Colinís Ouisa as she falters in her purpose. Essandoh delivers his best work early and only works against the play with his later choices.
These may be the decisions and direction of Anne Kauffmann. She has staged the play wonderfully, but some of the characters seem under-rehearsed. Drigan Leeís hustler is just fine, but Benjamin Mehlsí Trent, a vulnerable college student, was less believable. Ariel Woodiwiss and Lucas Kavner played their roles perfectly, but Clea Alsip and Lauren Blumenfeld seemed over the top. Ned Eisenberg was the most believable of the other characters while Michael Bradley Cohen as a very tall eight-year-old (actually in his twenties) was convincing but annoying. John Beford Lloyd and the others were just fine.
The sets by Antje Ellermann and costumes by Jennifer Moeller were exactly right for the play. David Weinerís lighting solved difficult problems perfectly. Fitz Pattonís sound design was sometimes confusing.
Lucas Kavner, Ariel Woodiwiss, Ato Essandor; photo: T. Charles Erickson
"Six Degrees of Separation" leaves you wondering about all people you know, know on line, and think you know. Anyone who believes that they understand people will find this a jarring play, their personal reality challenged at every turn. Those of you who know that people are deceitful, conniving and dangerous will wonder why a woman with a sense of responsibility would ever find this situation compelling and fascinating. For the rest of us...itís a play.
Six Degrees of Separation plays through July 25 at the Williamstown Theatre Festivalís main stage space in the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance, located at 1000 Main Street in Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets, contact the box office at 413-597-3400 or go on line at www.wtfestival.org.