Director Stuart Bousel offers a fast-paced, witty production full of satire and humor.
“Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare made its debut in New York in 1990, and was later made into a stylish film with Will Smith and Stockard Channing. “Six Degrees” has won many awards and become a contemporary classic, played all around the country. The idea of only a slight separation between any two people on the planet shows itself in Guare’s play when the supposed son of Sidney Poiter bursts in on an elegant couple in their Park Avenue apartment.
Against the 80s backdrop of soaring stock and art prices, seductive deals and trickery, continuing into the 90s and up to the Crash of 2009, Guare abandons realism and kitchen-sink drama. He seeks a deeper truth, beyond material goods, by breaking the fourth wall and letting his characters speak their thoughts directly.
The play’s premise allows the writer to assemble a coterie of eccentric, funny characters, from wildly varying social classes, who would never meet in real life. This set up allows him to pierce through “reality” to get at the truth about how we live. Chief among these over-the-top, clearly satirical characters are husband-and-wife Ouisa (Genevieve Perdue) and Flan Kittredge (Matt Weimer). Flan is an elegant art dealer for the wealthy Park Avenue set and Ouisa is his partner. They live high and spend more than they can afford. Their survival depends on their next big deal, as they entertain a friend cum client in order to get two million dollars for a Matisse, which they are buying and re-selling. They are high-end wheeler-dealers in the fabulous New York art world, and they live on the edge.
As presented in this fast-paced, witty production, we relish the satire and humor of these flighty, smart, and ultra-competitive A-Listers. They offer themselves as gilded butterflies that float high over Central Park, looking down on the common people below. They live for their treasured Kandinskys, Cezannes, Matisse’s, and 19th Century Silver Beaver inkwells. Everything they value becomes a two-edged satirical sword, with which Guare cuts them humorously down to size.
As the ridiculously named Ouisa and Flan, Perdue and Weimar give us fast repartee and clever commentary on what wealthy people thought about apartheid when it was still flourishing. They are trying to sell a Matisse to a South African diamond-mine billionaire Jeffrey (Carl Lucania) who employs thousands in slave-labor. Like the Kittredges, Jeffrey professes to be liberal, waiting for the enslaved workers to rise up and murder him. They are having a high old time in the Fifth Avenue apartment, as Ouisa and Flan scheme to get money out of him. But their jokes are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Guare’s main figure, the catalyst of the play, and the reason for the title, “Six Degrees of Separation”: the wounded and bleeding Paul (Khary Moye).
It’s crucial to the plot, based on a true story, to note that Paul is African American, and that he is brought in by their flustered doorman. Paul explains that he is friends to the Kittredge’s kids at Harvard: their spoiled daughter Tess (Kathleen McHatton) and their angry son Woody (Kye Goldman). Paul has been stabbed in the street, he says, and ends up making dinner and telling stories for Ouisa, Flan, and Jeffrey — and saving their Deal. His stories of his supposed father, Sidney Poitier, the great film star, capture the Kittredge’s imagination and aspiration to higher status, even as they deny that they are “starfucking.”
Their command of Matisse and Cezanne and Kandinsky pales beside their knowledge of popular culture and their snobbery. Guare satirizes the condescending couples that live in Uptown New York and, looking down on common people, even while they sympathize with clever Paul. Director Stuart Bousel has kept the full cast onstage throughout, as witness to their narcissism and self-exposure, creating a Chorus to comment from behind as we laugh at them from in front. The full cast present the snobbish New Yorkers in full-on satire, exposing their harshness, with a heavy hand.
Guare is going for parody and ridicule here, with most of the wit and fun reserved for the sudden turns and tricks of Ouisa and Flan. The actors capture their brittle charm and abrupt contradictions, smartly and gracefully. Each exists in a private universe and they try to joke their way out of every conflict. By the end, both Flan and Ouisa have personal revelations prompted by the elusive Paul, who brings disorder, sexuality, exposure, and a nearly naked hustler into their guestroom.
Ouisa and Flan possess a two-sided Kandinsky painting that hovers in the background, but we never see its “other” side. They don’t explain much about its “Chaos” versus “Order” dichotomy, even as they play out the chaos/order class conflict between themselves and Paul. The Kittredges hover on the edge of disaster, all through the Art of their Deals.
Maybe Ouisa gets something solid and spiritual out of her encounter with Paul “Poiter-Kittredge,” finally, but it’s up to us to decide what new departures such people are able to take. Maybe, after 26 years of waiting, we will get a chance to confront this conflict, this election year. Maybe. When is the moment for intervening and changing your life, Ouisa? How much longer can we wait to close the gulf that separates us from those who need us, down in Central Park?
“Six Degrees of Separation” plays through June 18, 2016. For further information, click here.
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“Six Degrees of Separation” by John Guare. Produced by Custom Made Theatre. Director: Stuart Bousel. Assistant Director: Neil Higgins. Stage Manager/Props Designer: Grisel Torres. Scenic Designer: Ryan Martin. Costume Designer: Brooke Jennings. Lighting Designer: William Campbell. Sound Designer: Ryan Lee Short.
Rick: Sam Bertken. Elizabeth: Alisha Ehrlich. Woody/Hustler: Kyle Goldman. Larkin: Brian Levi. Geoffrey/Policeman: Carl Lucania. Tess: Kathleen McHatton. Ben/Detective: Kyle McReddie. Paul: Khary Moye. Ouisa: Genevieve Perdue. Kitty: Kelly Rinehart. Doug/Trent: Richard Sargent. Dr. Fine: Karl Schackne. Flan: Matt Weimer.