Six Degrees of Separation
The Guthrie Theatre's production of John Guare's contemporary classic Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Ethan McSweeny, tells the story of a young African American man who enters the lives of an urbane New York art dealer and his wife by posing as Sidney Poitier's son. Unfortunately, this production fails to forcefully deliver the central themes of fakery and racial and class disparities to its audience of urbane elites.
The play is loosely based on the true story of imposter David Hampton who was arrested in 1983 for posing as Sidney Poitier's son in order to gain access to the homes of elite New Yorkers. In the play, Paul, a young African American man, arrives at the home of Ouisa and Flanders Kittredge claiming to have been stabbed in a mugging in the park. He says he is a college friend of their children and amazes them with erudite conversation and cooking, helping them close an important art deal. However, his story unravels and the play turns into a comedy with dark thematic undertones as the Kittredges and their friends pursue an explanation for the evening's events.
The play explores themes of reality versus appearance, the inner and outer, the two sides of all people. As an African American entering the lily-white world of the New York elite, Paul brings out both the paternalism and the latent racism of the group. He fits their image of what a nice black boy ought to be, but as soon as their beliefs are dispelled, they are quick to revert to racist stereotypes. The theme of fakery is evident in Paul as an imposter, and in the fakery of the social climbing Kittredges who are living "hand-to-mouth on a different plane," seeking to join the ranks of the truly wealthy by pretending to be what they are not. This theme is further developed through the play's frequent references to the Catcher in the Rye and Holden's distaste for fakery.
Paul has seen that what it takes to succeed is to make one's self a forgery, to become what others want you to be; however, he cannot surmount the initial obstacle to social mobility - gaining access to the elites - without initiating a lie that is too large to maintain. He confuses his true identity with those he takes on in the same way that Flan and Ouisa have lost themselves in the stereotyped identities that they project to their friends and customers.
The acting of supporting cast members is particularly strong with great performances by Richard Ooms as Geoffrey, the South African gold financier, and Leah Curney, Bard Goodrich, and Ryan Lindberg as children of the duped socialites. The strength of these performances is shown as they play to a stereotype, bringing to life a script that draws on themes of fakery and stereotypes. Danyon Davis as Paul and Amy Van Nostrand as Ouisa hold our attention but could do more as the two most psychologically complex characters in the play. Stephen Pelinski doesn't play to stereotype as Flan the art dealer, and it leaves a sense of emptiness in the heart of the play as he is neither a realistic character with whom we can empathize, nor a stereotype we can laugh at at.
The set is refreshingly underplayed with none of the mechanized scene changes the Guthrie is capable of. A subtle reflection of the theme of "two sides to all things" is represented by the double-sided Kandinsky painting in the Kittredge home, with one side representing chaos and another order.
In Six Degrees of Separation the Guthrie had an opportunity to hold up a mirror to the elites who patronize its aisles, to invite them to take a hard look at their beliefs about race, class, and social mobility. It is unfortunate they didn't seize this opportunity with more direct force, but an entertaining evening is still to be had.
Six Degrees of Separation runs through April 6th: Tuesdays-Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 7:00 pm. Matinees on selected Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays are at 1:00pm. Tickets are $16-$46. The Guthrie Theatre is located at 725 Vineland Place in Minneapolis. Call: (612) 377-2224 or online at www.guthrietheater.org.