'Six Degrees' ventures back into the garish '90s for a tale about privilege and race

Dan Norman Photography

Dan Norman Photography

John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation premiered in 1990, and Alice Frederickson’s costume design for Theatre Latté Da’s strong new production doesn’t let us forget it: The younger characters wear white sneakers, garish polo shirts, and jean skirts. The play isn’t only redolent of the early ‘90s when it comes to fashion, though. It takes us back to the beginning of a new Gilded Age, when wealthy whites rode a rising Dow and told themselves that was all that mattered.

The Ritz Theater

The play begins with a literal wound -- in a character who has others that are less visible. A young man named Paul (JuCoby Johnson) throws himself on the mercy of Flan (Mark Benninghofen) and Ouisa (Sally Wingert), a New York couple who are just about to close a multimillion-dollar art deal with Geoffrey (Patrick Bailey), a diamond mogul. Bleeding from a stab wound, Paul says he’s a Harvard classmate of the couple’s children, and he didn’t know where to turn after being mugged.

Paul wows the three with his charm and erudition; when he says he’s the son of none other than Sidney Poitier, that seems entirely plausible. It’s later revealed, thanks to Gabriel Murphy in one of the showiest cameo roles ever created for the American stage, that Paul isn’t who he says he is. The connection Paul shared with Ouisa and Flan was real, though, and the play’s outcome ultimately hinges on whether the couple can forgive this extraordinary young man they met under false pretenses.

Scenic designer Kate Sutton-Johnson has transformed the Ritz Theater stage into a stylish apartment that’s full of paintings. Many of the pieces are authentic creations by Twin Cities artists, as detailed in the program. Live music performed onstage by versatile actors (notably Jay Albright on piano and Dan Piering on cello) helps draw us into the all-too-comfortable world of a couple who’ve paid for their lifestyle, in part, by sacrificing meaningful human relationships.

Director Peter Rothstein isn’t afraid to go for some broad humor, particularly when it comes to the whiny younger generation. He pulls it off without sacrificing the play’s pathos, by ensuring the key characters of Paul and Ouisa keep their feet on the ground. Wingert is completely in her element, exuding that particular confidence that comes from being the more practical-minded half of a fabulously privileged couple. While Johnson doesn’t boast the sheer charisma you might expect from Paul, he plays the role patiently and creates a poignant rapport with Wingert.

If Six Degrees evinces its era’s attitudes toward wealth, it also speaks to the conversation about race in the ‘90s: the decade that gave us the term “superpredators.” Wealthy, educated whites like Flan and Ouisa have plenty of nice things to say about the great Poitier and his supposed son, but their prejudices become unmistakably apparent when they see Paul in a new light. All the characters suffer for this lack of empathy, but suffering is relative when you’re a multimillionaire.

Dan Norman Photography

Dan Norman Photography


Six Degrees of Separation
Theatre Latte Da at the Ritz Theater
Through April 9