Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A sturdy but grim “Six Degrees of Separation” by Falcon’s Eye

From left: Dennis Beck, Anthony M. Person, Bonnie Antonini. Photo courtesy of Falcon's Eye Theatre.
“Six Degrees of Separation” made its Broadway debut in 1990, promptly winning a bouquet of awards for its quirky playwright, John Guare, and its sensational production. One of the play’s peculiarities is that it’s a literal dramatization of a real-life story but with the names of the characters changed.

The real-life yarn revolves around David Hampton, a young African-American and Harvard graduate who posed as the son of Sidney Poitier. As a con artist he wormed his way into upper-crust New York society. After a short term in prison for bilking his victims, Hampton, with appalling effrontery, sued Guare for a cut from profits of the play based on Hampton’s escapades but lost the case.

For Guare art carries a tension between imagination and the real world. "Does the playwright elect to keep that kitchen sink to soothe the audience? Does the playwright dismantle the kitchen sink and take the audience into dangerous terrain?” he asks. “How the playwright resolves this tension between surface reality and inner reality, how the playwright restores the theater to its true nature as a place of poetry, song, joy, a place of darkness where the bright truth is told, that war against the kitchen sink is ultimately the history of our theater."

In “Six Degrees of Separation” he finds a way to resolve the conflict, uniting imagination and kitchen sink. The title of the play is taken from a controversial formula that tells us how each of us, through six people of our acquaintance, is connected to everybody else in the world. In the play Ouisa Kittredge, the matronly wife of Flanders Kittredge, a New York art dealer, finds the formula “extremely comforting, that we're so close, but I also find it like Chinese water torture that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the connection.”

In the original production Stockard Channing played Ouisa, and reports indicate that she was very funny as the pretentious wife of a successful art dealer, and as the foil of Paul, the canny black con artist who turns out, in the end and after a brief spell in jail, to be a kind of poor man’s messiah. Ultimately she defies her husband and welcomes Paul back into their home.

In the current production she’s played by the skillful and experienced Bonnie Antonini, but the character interpretation is straightforward rather than comic. Thus Ouisa’s late epiphany, as interpreted in the current production and apparently endorsed by Director David Harris, seems unmotivated and meaningless.

Harris–producer of Falcon’s Eye Theatre of Folsom Lake College, where he’s an assistant professor–has assembled a high-level cast of 17 on the spare stage at Vista del Lago High School, pending construction of the college’s theater. Despite the ponderous interpretation we get a fast-paced drama with crisp delivery. Anthony M. Person is Paul, Dennis Beck is Flanders, with Brent Bianchini and Amanda Bremer as a pair of ill-fated lovers. A comic Dr. Fine (Kevin Cooper) brings a brief touch of levity to the proceedings.

(The play, incidentally, may be a treasure chest of insider jokes. Because Paul/Hampton attended Harvard, the name “Kittredge” may be a sly allusion to the late George Lyman Kittredge, the university’s distinguished Shakespearean scholar. When asked why he’d never earned a doctorate, Kittredge famously answered, “Who would test me?”)

“Six Degrees of Separation” continues through April 5 in the new Studio Theatre at Vista del Lago High School, 1970 Broadstone Parkway, Folsom. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15 general, $10 students and seniors. Call (916) 608-6800 for reservations.

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