‘Six Degrees’ deftly captures a changing society

By Jordan Wright

When John Guare’s iconic play, “Six Degrees of Separation,” was first produced at Lincoln Center in New York City in 1993, it fit in with the zeitgeist perfectly.

Society had been reconfigured over the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s by integration, intermarriage and the acceptance of celebrities mixing with high society — most especially in New York, where music, theater, fashion and arts have always defined social constructs. Insiders named it the “jet set” for its mix of international luminaries and well-heeled travelers.

Recreational drugs had a way of bringing unlikely social enclaves together, and gallery openings sent the uptown crowd downtown to SoHo, the East Village and Tribeca to dip their naive toes into the fashionably unknown. In “Six Degrees of Separation,” Guare visits the evolving complexities of society vis-à-vis modern art at the turn of the decade.

Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, a well-heeled WASP couple, fancy themselves liberal-minded. Flan, a self-styled art dealer, is on the hunt for $2 million for a French masterpiece that he intends to flip for a profit to the Japanese. When his wealthy friend comes by for a drink, they pitch him their idea.
As the conversation moves on from the painting, the businessman explains his political position as an owner of gold mines in South Africa.

“We have to educate the black workers. We’ll know we’re successful when they kill us,” he haughtily states. To which Ouisa replies: “It doesn’t seem right living on the East Side talking about revolution.”

Her husband, attempting to soften her stance, clarifies: “Ouisa is a Dada manifesto.”

Thus the stage is set for an existential exercise in compassion, morals and old money when a well-dressed, young black man named Paul knocks on their door, weak from a stabbing, and begs for mercy. He introduces himself as a schoolmate of the Kittredge’s Harvard-attending children, and just like that, Paul is in the door and in their thrall as they quiz him on literature, art and the “black experience.”

Paul readily expounds on his intellectual theories and tells them that he is the son of famed actor, Sidney Poitier. Convinced, they agree to back a New York City movie festival if they can act in Poitier’s next movie. As raconteur extraordinaire Paul boondoggles his victims, their involvement becomes compounded by their sympathies.

“We turned him into an anecdote to dine out on,” Ouisa admits.

Guare has managed to perfectly capture the mood of the period — white guilt, radicalism of art, sex and politics, and the confusion, curiosity and fear that comes from such a dramatic social shift. So successful is this play, based on a true story, that its title has become part of our shared lexicon, a euphemism for how closely we are socially connected. It has even spawned a parlor game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” in which two actors can be connected through their films or love life.

With Port City Playhouse celebrating its 100th show, the theater’s team has chosen the perfect vehicle to launch its 36th season. Director Mary Ayala-Bush triumphs in the subtle staging of this production. On a small stage — in the round — she has choreographed the actors so as to draw in the audience and deliver a feeling of shared experience and believability.

Dana Gattuso (as Ouisa), Chuck Leonard (as Flan), Chaz Pando (as Paul), Marcus Anderson (as Rick) and Kyle McGruther (as Trent Conway, Paul’s Henry Higgins) are especially riveting, as is a cameo by Daniel McKay (as the gay hustler).

“Six Degrees of Separation” is at the Port City Playhouse at The Lab at Convergence, located at 1819 N. Quaker Lane. Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday. For tickets and information, visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.

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