Six Degrees of Separation shares much in common with Catcher in the Rye, the novel at the play’s moral center. Both are full of terribly unlikable characters who can turn our loathing into self-reflection. Both turn a sad situation into something humorous, at least in their ability to elicit pathos. But most of all, they are relics of their time that have turned into classics that allow us to see how much, and how little, our society has changed since their release.
Director Brandon McCoy treats Six Degrees very much like a classic, letting John Guare’s tale of con-artistry among the one percent speak for itself. Matthew Keenan’s set design is bare and Colin Dieck’s lights, while pulling some fun tricks with silhouetting, focus on giving the actors some space to work in, rather than heavily dictating mood or location.
Typical of Keegan productions, this play is all about the story and the people who tell it. Mystery man Paul bamboozles Manhattan elite, particularly socialite Louisa (call her Ouisa), by pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son. When his canard evaporates under scrutiny, Paul changes his approach with quite serious consequences. As is Guare’s wont, rollicking farce pivots to existential angst both for the trickster and the trickees, causing both to delve into their Salinger-esque fatal flaws: Paul’s desperate self-alienation of trying to survive and the exposed phoniness of Ouisa’s unfulfilling life of privilege.
McCoy lets his actors off the leash emotionally, giving the plurality of the play a fun, schlocky (if sometimes sloppy) style. Ryan Swain as Paul stands out in this massive 16 member cast, mastering the magic of drawing a whole audience into a confidence trick. We know, or at least strongly suspect, that Paul’s pretensions are a con, but Swain charms so well that we don’t care. Over the play, as his character shifts from grifter to drifter, we see echoes of the Caulfield that he professes to pity, or at least his potential, what Holden might have been if he had the courage to leave forever his ensconced environment.
Most of the cast, and most of this play, deals with Paul’s disruption to that rarified strata above the East side of the Island Manhattan. The old adage goes, “Write what you know,” and this realm is certainly where Guare’s experience, and his audience, lay in 1990 at its premiere. Local stalwart actors Ray Ficca and Susan Marie Rhea are the raisonneurs (audience stand-ins that expound the morality of the play) as art dealer Flan and wife Ouisa whom Paul tricks among many others, but Rhea’s character is the only one who maintains empathy for Paul even as his cadging goes awry.
But none of these elites, from Flan and Ouisa’s Caulfield-like spoiled children to the immigrant doctor tricked by Paul into a bathrobe and glass of brandy to Paul’s ex-lover Trent, inspire empathy of their own. Perhaps this distance is intentional, but it gives Six Degrees of Separation emotional walls that are high and hard to climb, given their dominant occupation of the play. Similar complaints have been lodged against Catcher in the Rye, and while this might make that book and this play good literature, it makes them a rougher sort of entertainment.
Six Degrees of Separation
closes December 3, 2016
Details and tickets
Positively, that lack of empathy is a good ledge for McCoy and his cast to hang some hilarity on, which is the saving grace of this play. If comedy is the dramatic representation of people who are worse than (the general) you, Six Degrees of Separation has it in spades. But the drama that intends to be the closing act of the play falls short. Late in the play, Ouisa, in a bout of special concern over Paul, declaims that she doesn’t know Paul’s real name or his ultimate fate. Here’s the true tragedy of this play: his name was David Hampton and he died of complications related to AIDS in 2003.
Yes, this play, though seemingly ridiculous, is based on a truly sad true story of a con artist who, after the play’s premiere, was pushed deeper down the rabbit hole of mental illness, lies, and existential angst far greater than portrayed on this stage. He became the anti-hero turned villain that one feels that Holden Caulfield wished he could have been. I won’t detail his steep and often terrifying decline here, but I think that its tenor defines a change in our societal attitudes that changes perspectives on this play and shows it to be very much of its time.
I left Six Degrees of Separation with the distinct impression that I should have sympathized primarily with Ouisa, whose upper class White liberal guilt should have stood in for my own. I should have been unable to blithely go about my life realizing the connection I had with a lower class Black con artist. But instead, I wished that the story had given more life to Paul’s rarely-heard true voice. Ouisa’s literal and figurative hand wringing, so central to this play, became an afterthought. I wanted to know Paul’s experience, unmediated by this ununderstanding voice.
And maybe that shows a kind of growth from a quarter century past. Perhaps a sighing dismissal of the first-world problems that were so central to this play in the original and a concentration on the needs of the truly needy can give audiences, as Catcher in the Rye did, a means to see themselves and those outside their experience in a new light. If this kind of message is one that you want to explore, then Six Degrees of Separation is just for you.
Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare. Directed by Brandon McCoy. Featuring Susan Marie Rhea, Ray Ficca, Kevin Adams, Ryan Swain, Josh Sticklin, Karen Novack, Jon Townson, Ava Knox, Eli Pendry, Jonathan Helwig, Timothy H. Lynch, Christian Montgomery, Daniel Lyons, Patrick Joy, Matthew Sparacino, and Kathleen Mason . Scenic Design: Matthew Keenan . Lighting Design: Colin Dieck . Costume Design: Kristina Marie Martin . Sound Design and Original Compositions: Brandon McCoy . Hair and Makeup Design: Craig Miller . Properties Design: Carol H. Baker . Stage Management: Juliana Parks . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Alan Katz.