Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Six Degrees of Separation
The Old Globe

you're a stranger who's come here,
come from another town.
Funny, I'm a stranger myself here.
Small world, isn't it?

Karen Ziemba and Samuel Stricklen
John Guare's play, Six Degrees of Separation, has been credited with popularizing what became known as "The Small World Problem." While scholars differ on the specifics, the essence of this theory is that there are a relatively small number of "links" that separate any two individuals. This theory can help to explain how a compelling story can spread quickly, even if its exposure via mass media is limited.

But the play also serves to illustrate a contrasting phenomenon, known as the "Mean World Syndrome." According to this theory, people use dramatic events, such as violent content on television, to distort their view of the world around them. The more exposure to this sort of content, the meaner the world around them seems.

Ouisa and Flan have barricaded themselves into their Upper East Side apartment. Oh, there are no bars on the windows, but there is an ever-vigilant doorman, whom, brags Ouisa, they tip generously each holiday season. Their apartment is filled with art (Flan is an art dealer for private clients, and in a sense his home serves as a gallery that displays his taste (his pièce de résistance is a two-sided Kandinsky). The art also serves as a buffer against the mean world that supposedly lurks just outside their building's door, and Flan and Ouisa are terrified that this buffer will be stolen. In fact, the play opens with Flan and Ouisa in a panic because they just realized that their home has been invaded by someone from the mean world and they are certain that something has been stolen. When they learn that nothing has been stolen they are flabbergasted.

It turns out that Ouisa and Flan have been living on the edge, to some degree, themselves. They have three children, two at Harvard and one in boarding school, and supporting those three children and an Upper East Side lifestyle has proven to be financially draining. Flan needs to close a profitable art deal or all will come tumbling down. Ouisa is supportive of Flan and serves as a good partner for the schmoozing that he needs to do for business reasons, but her children live away, mostly ignoring her, and she intensely feels the loneliness that her life has engendered. In short, she is a perfect mark for the sort of con that a young man named Paul brings into her life. Flan and Ouisa don't appear to consume the quantity of media that the mean world theory would require, but their existence has bred so much anxiety and their social contacts talk about the mean world so much that they have distorted the character of the city of New York in the mid-1980s.

Paul is from the mean world, but his con is to act as though he's from the small world, and his goal seems as though he wants to be accepted as being from the small world. He worms his way into his victims' lives by claiming to know them through their children (thus creating the small world), and all it seems that he wants is to be cared for by his victims. He's not totally benign: the play shows him using his sexual wiles to get what he wants and caring not at all about the consequences of doing so. Still, his con proves to be a catalyst for the success of Flan's art deal, and his only sin, essentially, turns out to be bringing the mean world into Flan and Ouisa's home.

As the aftermath of the con plays out, similarly conned neighbors, embarrassed and outraged children, and a bored police detective come and go. But, Ouisa and Paul have achieved a brief connection by pretending that each was from the other's small world. When it comes time for Ouisa to con Paul so that justice might be done, she agonizes over doing so. Guare's brilliance in revealing the duality of the small world and the mean world (a duality represented by the two-sided Kandinsky) lies in how funny it is in the telling, how true it feels, even nearly 20 years after it was written, and how touched we are by the many missed opportunities for connection that the play depicts.

Trip Cullman's fast-paced production picks up all of these subtleties and proves to be jam-packed with clever details. Kudos especially to Andromache Chalfant's set and Ben Stanton's lighting, which serve to remind us of the simultaneous presence of both the small world and the mean world, muting one or both at times, highlighting them at others. At the center of the acting ensemble is Karen Ziemba's Ouisa, and Mr. Cullman is lucky to have her there. A star of Broadway musicals, Ms. Ziemba shows off her ensemble performing skills here. She effectively takes center stage when the script so dictates, but she also proves to be skillful in supporting her fellow performers. Hers is a performance to treasure.

The role of Paul is the most difficult one, I think. Samuel Stricklen's portrayal was headed in the right direction at the press opening, and his performance will undoubtedly clarify and deepen over time. Thomas Jay Ryan manages to reveal simultaneously Flan's no-nonsense façade and his underlying anxieties. And Joaquin Pérez-Campbell does memorable turns as both a street hustler and a sensitive young man who Paul cons.

Guare packs a good deal into 90 intermission-less minutes, and the Old Globe's cast responds with an ensemble performance to cherish.

The Old Globe presents Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare. Performances Tuesday-Sunday through February 15, 2009. Tickets available at (619) 234-5623, or online at The Old Globe's website.

Directed by Trip Cullman, Scenic Design by Andromache Chalfant, Costume Design by Emily Rebholz, Lighting Design by Ben Stanton, Sound Design by Paul Peterson.

With Karen Ziemba, Thomas Jay Ryan, Tony Torn, Samuel Stricklen, Steven Marzolf, Joaquin Pérez-Campbell, Keliher Walsh, Donald Sage Mackay, Vivia Font, Jordan McArthur, Kevin Hoffmann, James Eckhouse, Sloan Grenz, Andrew Dahl, and Catherine Growl.

Photo: Craig Schwartz

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- Bill Eadie

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