Separation Anxiety

Guess who's coming to dinner: Danyon Davis as the con artist in 'Six Degrees of Separation'
Guthrie Theater

When it premiered in 1990, Six Degrees of Separation was celebrated partly for the photographic exactness of its New York social panorama. The story of Paul (Danyon Davis), a con artist who muscles his way into the lives of moneyed Upper East Side intellectuals by claiming to be Sydney Poitier's son, captured the tension, excess, and superficiality of its historical moment. But unless you're very young or, say, a nostalgic former member of Wilson Phillips, the10 years since the movie might not feel like enough time to turn yesterday's zeitgeist into today's period piece. Plus, the (Kevin) Baconian aspect of the play's "six-degrees" concept--not original to Guare's script but propagated by it to an unexpected degree--robs a key scene of its hey, cool impact. So on paper at least, this major revival seems premature.

But, you know, you forget. Till the other night, I'd completely erased another of Six Degrees' small yet potentially big ideas, and in the Guthrie's production, it struck me all over again. Addressing the audience, affluent art dealer Flan Kittredge (Stephen Pelinski) recalls a parent-teacher conference in which he asked his child's second-grade teacher why all her students painted like prodigies, while the first graders produced "blotches of green and black" and the third graders churned out "camouflage." The teacher, it turned out, just knew when to take away the paper. Director Ethan McSweeny seems to have a similarly sharp instinct for knowing when to quit. Performed to the author's specifications in 90 uninterrupted minutes, this production whirs like it's late for a wedding, coming and going in such a rush that its flood of evocative ideas is all the more engulfing.

In contrast to the meditative movie adaptation, McSweeny goes for a breezy mood to match the gusty tempo. Except for the square, over-the-top scenes of generational conflict between the play's distant adults and their disaffected collegiate offspring, the steady laughter is deserved. But the levity does a slight disservice to the spiritual reawakening Paul's intrusion sets off in Ouisa (Amy Van Nostrand), Flan's wife and the play's emotional center. Van Nostrand is great as Ouisa, wry yet soulful, assured yet adrift. She beautifully telegraphs her smitten awe of unctuous name-dropper Paul when he first mesmerizes the Kittredges and their South African dinner guest Geoffrey (an amusingly prim Richard Ooms). But at the play's end, when she struggles with her failure to either help the screwed-up Paul or newly comprehend her empty life, her distress is a bit abrupt, a moody afterthought that hasn't been properly presaged.

McSweeny has taken some cues from the play's 1990 production at New York's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, which like the Guthrie has a thrust stage that's ideal for the play's 17-member cast and frequent audience-directed speeches and asides. Most of the actors sit in the theater's front row, from which they join the action for a scene or an instant. Thanks in part to this technique and a company-wide vivacity, the show's transitions are as fluid as a baton pass. The spare, elegant set sometimes seems realistic, sometimes open and suggestive. This seems fitting for a story that conjures both a drab existence and a pleasantly disruptive dream as pregnant and abstract as the two-sided Kandinsky painting (somber and geometric on one side, vibrant and wild on the other) that provides the play's central metaphor.

"I was so happy, I wanted to add sex," says a vulnerable Paul late in the play. Generally a good idea, though I suppose not in the pick-up-a-hustler-in-Central Park style Paul favors. This brisk production of Six Degrees lets out a bit after 9:00 p.m. Hell, you could add sex to your night and still be cleaned up in time for Letterman.

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