Sunday, February 16, 2003

Six Degrees of Separation (Charenton)


In 1967 Harvard Social Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that illustrated that everyone in the world can be reached through a short chain of social acquaintances. The Small World Phenomenon estimates that each of us is only 5.8 genealogical steps away from any other person in the world.

The Small World Phenomenon is the basis for John Guare’s play ‘SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION’. Guare, by his own admission, altered the theory as he didn’t feel that ‘5.8 Degrees of Separation’ would make a good play title. Guare’s play is now on stage at Charenton Theatre at Playhouse Square Center.

Guare is a musician and poet. This comes out in his writing with the creation of verbal librettos with melodic overtones. His plays are full of talk and the characters often tell extended stories much like those in the plays of Anton Chekov.

The majority of Guare’s protagonists are fixated on what they think will make them happy. Guare’s dramatic structure involves the use of twists and turns and allowing the audience to know what the characters do not know. All this makes Guare, a highly adventurous playwright.

The story concerns Fifth Avenue socialite Ouisa Kittredge and her purveyor of high-art husband Flan. They are pedigree parents of "two at Harvard and one at Groton." But the privileged insular world inhabited by the Kittredge family makes them easy prey for a consummate con-artist. One night, Paul, a young black man mysteriously shows up at their door - injured and bleeding- claiming to be Sidney Poitier's son and a close college crony of the Kittredges' children. Paul proves to be sharp-witted. He soon has the Kittredges loaning him money and putting him up for the night and taking satisfaction in his appraisal of their posh lifestyle. What follows is both a mystery and a challenging philosophical tale. Who really is Paul? Can the Kittridges’ liberal views stand up to the challenge of reality?

The play demonstrates how separate people are from one another, not how close, how little responsibility each feels for the other. The intruder is less a man than an emblem.

Charenton’s production is involving, if not captivating. Part of the difficulty centers on director Sarah May’s to decision start the production at a slow pace. This lulls the audience into a sense of complacency that allows ideas and Guare’s message to sometimes slip under their emotional radar. On the other hand, her creative staging has cast members rising from seats in the audience and creating clear characters.

The huge cast is talented and each develops a clear character. Sean Booker is outstanding as Geoffrey. He cons not only the characters in the play, but the audience as well. Jacqi Loewy creates a very believable Ouisa. Other quality performances are given by Jesse James Kamps, as the young man who teaches Paul what he needs to know in order to pull off the scam, James Savage Jr, who falls for Paul’s line with traumatic effect and Jennifer Clifford, as the Kittredge’s erratic daughter.

Capsule Judgement: 'SIX DEGREES OF SEPERATION' gets a fine production at Charenton.