Six Degrees of Separation

Arthur Dorman
Talkin’ Broadway

March 16, 2017

John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is without doubt one of the great American plays of the past fifty years. It strikes at our attitudes about money and wealth, our reverence for celebrity, and the intersection of race, class, and sexual orientation. It is at once a biting satire, a comedy of manners, and a poignant meditation on the forces that connect us and that keep us apart. It is back in a smashing production by Theater Latté Da that fires on all cylinders, including fantastic performances from Sally Wingert, Mark Benninghofen, and JuCoby Johnson.

Six Degrees of Separation appeared in 1990, triggered by a true story told to Guare. In 1983 a young black man named David Hampton conned at least a dozen people into believing he was the son of Sidney Poitier. On that basis, his victims invited him to stay for dinner, spend the night in their posh homes, and gave him money before Hampton was caught, brought to trial, and given a prison sentence. In the real world that allowed Hampton’s ruse to succeed (for a while), just being, or claiming to be, the child (spouse, parent) of a celebrity establishes credentials and a connection to others in the same social strata. But what real connections—acquaintance, school affiliation, familial ties, work history, or otherwise—actually link us to one another?

Guare’s stroke of genius was to meld the con-man anecdote with a theory of social linkages, found in the work of psychologist Stanley Milgram (1933-1984) on what he called the “small world” problem. The notion that all of us, round the world, are connected by a string of affiliations of no more than six people came to be called six degrees of separation, and captured the public imagination, despite lack of scientific proof of its validity. As Guare’s character Ouisa Kittredge states, “Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find it A) extremely comforting that we’re so close, and B) like Chinese water torture that we’re so close because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection.”

The play begins with Ouisa and her husband Flan in their bathrobes, exclaiming about an upheaval that apparently just occurred in their stylish, expensive-looking home. Was anything stolen? They could have been killed! Suddenly, they turn to us and go back to how it started, making a story of it, tag-teaming as couples do when relating a shared experience.

The Kittredges are high-end art dealers, buying high-priced works of art away from the public eye, and selling them at even higher prices. The evening before, they were entertaining a wealthy friend visiting from South Africa, whom they hoped to persuade to pony up two million dollars toward the purchase of a Matisse—which they knew they could sell to a Japanese buyer for a great deal more. Suddenly, a young black man bursts into their apartment. He introduces himself as Paul, a friend of the Kittredges’ two children at Harvard (a third Kittredge child is at Groton). Paul happened to be in Central Park, across the street from their home, when a mugger took all his money and his briefcase containing the only copy of his thesis, and left him with a stab wound. Though they’d never met, he knew from Tess and Woody’s accounts of their parents’ kindness that Ouisa and Flan would help him. Indeed they do, nursing his wound, giving him clean clothes, and urging him to join them for dinner.

Paul is charming, well spoken, thoughtful and bright. It is clear he knows their kids well, and that Tess and Woody had spoken often about their home. He reveals that his father is Sidney Poitier, who will arrive in New York in the morning. Well, of course Paul must stay the night with them. The evening is a complete success. However, the morning shows things in a different light when Ouisa finds a completely naked man, a hustler, in bed with Paul. After frantic screaming and chasing the hustler out the door—throwing his clothes after him—they tell Paul he had better leave too. He does, apologizing profusely and begging them not to tell his dad: “He doesn’t know,” Paul pleads. This takes us back to the beginning, with Flan and Ouisa ranting about the harm they narrowly escaped.

Flan and Ouisa soon learn that their friends whose son also attends Harvard had almost the same experience, hosting their son’s pal Paul Poitier. They finally reach their children (in the pre-text message era) and realize that Paul is a total fraud. They enlist their kids’ help to figure out who knows them well enough to have passed on so much personal detail to Paul, and who would do such a thing. What they learn is both astonishing and believable. But Paul is not finished. Using a shocking new ruse, he wins the confidence of Rick and Elizabeth, a sweet young couple from Utah pursuing theater careers in New York. Paul’s betrayal of their friendship is ruinous to the couple and at last provide grounds for Paul to be sought by the police. Only then does Paul reach out to Ouisa for help. Ouisa’s response is a great transformative theater moment.

The three lead performances perfectly capture each character’s charms and flaws. Audiences are well aware of Sally Wingert’s (Ouisa) spectacular range, flipping from biting comedy to dramatic yearning with the wave of a hand. Mark Benninghofen is also well known for his excellent portrayals of deceptively complex men. JuCoby Johnson is newer to our stages, but in just a few years has given numerous strong performances, most recently as a freed slave in Minnesota Jewish Theater Company’s stellar mounting of The Whipping Man. As Paul, he is so good looking, bright and charming that he makes the truth of his deceptions all the more heartbreaking. Johnson is clearly an actor on the rise.

Of the other characters, three—the South African friend, played by Patrick Bailey; Paul’s accomplice Trent, played by Grant Sorenson; and Paul’s too-trusting friend Rick, played by Gabriel Murphy—are given some substance in Guare’s script. All three actors bring authenticity to their portrayals. The college-age children of Flan, Ouisa, and Paul’s other victims are depicted as annoying, parent-bashing youth, frankly grating in contrast to Paul’s veneer of courtesy and polish.

The production’s creative team has done outstanding work. Kate Sutton-Johnson have created a sensationally lush and arty living room for Flan and Ouisa, with nooks and pedestals displaying artwork culled from artists working in the northeast arts district, where Theater Latté Da is based. Alice Fredrickson’s costumes perfectly represent the Kittredges’ chic pretensions, Paul’s preppy-clean persona, and Rick and Elizabeth’s thrift shop bohemian look. Barry Browning’s lighting draws the focus down as needed to create different levels of intimacy.

Theater Latté Da is known for superb productions of musicals and plays with music. Six Degrees of Separation is neither, but director Peter Rothstein has added live music to the production. Four cast members, when they are not in character, play songs (guitar, piano, tenor sax and cello) that create suitable background ambience during scenes and transitions, a nice addition to the play. Overall, Rothstein’s direction is sharp, catching all the wit, but focused on the questions raised by the play.

Those questions are numerous, and different viewers will no doubt find different questions more or less compelling. Like the characters in the play, its themes may connect with audience members through a variety of linkages to past experience and current concerns. In 1990, John Guare wrote a brilliant play that continues to provoke such questions, while spinning a darn entertaining yarn. Peter Rothstein, his stellar cast and gifted designers, have mounted it with elegance, intelligence and heart. This production of

Six Degrees of Separation is flat out terrific, and should not be missed.

Six Degrees of Separation continues through April 9, 2017, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets: $35.00 – $48.00. Student Rush Tickets (two per valid ID): $20.00; Public Rush Tickets: $24.00. Rush tickets must be purchased at box office, cash only, starting one hour before performances. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to theaterlatteda.com. Note, the play contains full male nudity and adult themes.

Writer: John Guare; Director: Peter Rothstein; Associate Director and Scenic Design: Kate Sutton-Johnson; Costume Design: Alice Fredrickson; ; Lighting Design: Barry Browning; Sound Design: Sean Healey; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Production Manager: Allen Weeks.

Cast: Jay Albright (Dr. Fine/Doorman/piano), Patrick Bailey (Geoffrey), Mark Benninghofen (Flanders Kittredge), JuCoby Johnson (Paul), Julie Madden (Kitty), Riley McNutt (Doug/detective/tenor saxophone), John Middleton (Larkin), Gabriel Murphy (Rick/hustler), Dan Piering (Woody/ policeman/ guitar/cello), Grant Sorenson (Trent/Ben), Kendall Anne Thompson (Tess/Elizabeth/guitar), Sally Wingert (Ouisa Kittredge).