Six Degrees of Separation
at the Loeb Ex
March 16 and 19, 7:30 p.m.
March 17, 7:30 and 9 p.m.
Using the Loeb Experimental Theater to put on a student production of "Six Degrees of Separation" is a strange choice. After all, student theater has the rare opportunity to boldly go where commercial theater usually does not, mounting avant-garde or student-written plays that couldn't fill the Mainstage. In the last few years, however, "Six Degrees" has been both a Broadway smash and a major film; anyone who needs to see this play already has. The burden to put on a genuinely successful performance is therefore much higher; people are coming, not just to see the play, but to see this production of the play.
The Harvard-Radcliffe Drama Club's production, directed by Jason Cooper and produced by Elisabeth Mayer, is a competent if unexciting one, redeemed by excellent performances from Jessica Fortunato and Colin Stokes as the middle-aged Manhattanite couple whose lives are disrupted by a young Black con man.
The couple, Ouisa Kittredge and her art-dealer husband Flan, inhabit a rarefied world in which they take for grantedKandinskys in the living room, multi-millionaire dinner guests and Ivy League children ("Two at Harvard, one at Groton").
Their complacency is shattered, however, when Paul (Kenneth Polite), an impeccably dressed young man, stumbles into their apartment during an important dinner with a stab wound in his side. As the evening progresses, Paul claims to be a friend of their children's at Harvard and a son of Sidney Poitier. He charms everyone in sight with his elegant manner and profound literary insights. It is only when the Kittredges awake to find him sleeping with a male prostitute in the guest bedroom that his facade is shattered. Soon it becomes clear that Paul, whose real last name is never discovered, has played the same trick on several of their children's friends, and the aggrieved parties band together to find him and turn him in.
The play's greatest strength is playwright John Guare's absolutely precise understanding of the Kittredges' life and milieu. They are sophistcated, ironic, baffled by their children, and a bit greedy, and their rapid-fire dialogue is the play's only unalloyed pleasure. Elsewhere, when Guare burlesques surly adolescents or waxes philosophical about the value of deep human connections, the play loses its sure touch; but when the Kittredges are on stage, especially in the first scene, they are delightful to hear.
Stokes is marvellous as Flan, communicating both his ironic intelligence ("There was an article about it in the paper of note--theTimes," he deadpans) and his essential goodness. And Fortunato has the tempo of Ouisa's anxious monologues down pat--"Two million dollars!" she repeats, like an incantation, as she and Flan woo a potential investor.
But Paul, who should be the play's second focus, is acted only adequately by Kenneth Polite. The character's motivations are hard to decipher in any case, but Polite gives us little inisght into them; he is not particularly shrewd or winning or desperate at the times when he should be. In his brief turn as a street hustler in a flashback, Polite is unconvincing; rather than natural speech rhythms he produces a kind of forced grunt. He also seems uncomfortable with the overtly homosexual content of that and other scenes, further impairing the credibility of the character. As a result, we are far more engaged by the relationship between Flan and Ouisa than the one between Ouisa and Paul, which should be the play's real center.
The scenes between the parents and their sullen Ivy League children benefit, in this production, from the added irony that it is the audience itself, Harvard students, which is being satirized on stage. The awfulness of these kids is so over the top that we can't help laughing at ourselves. It is curious to note in these scenes that the Harvard students playing parents actually do look older than the Harvard students playing Harvard students; the credit for this is due at least in part to Costume Designer Amy Bamberg, who clothes the actors with the exact attention to class and setting that the dialogue demands.
Not so amusing is the subplot involving the Utah couple Rick (Andrew Sachs) and Elizabeth (Bess Wohl). The decision to play this naive young husband and wife as a pair of hicks is a lamentable one resulting in broad caricatures rather than sympathetic performances. These scenes are rushed; the characters seem to jump on stage, shout their lines and disappear forever.
The play is largely comic in tone until the climactic final confrontation between Ouisa and Paul, in which the hidden ambiguities of their relationship are exposed. Paul longs to be the Kittredges' son and spiritual heir while Ouisa needs the genuine emotional connection which she and Paul share. This extended scene is the production's greatest triumph, never succumbing for a moment to the maudlin and vaguely mystical undertones which constantly threaten to swamp Guare's dialogue There is a good deal of symbolism at the send involving a double-sided Kandinsky, which one struggles to resolve into some kind of coherent meaning, but this production wisely downplays it as much as possible, allowing the genuine emotions to take our full attention.
"Six Degrees of Separation" is firmly grounded in the comic side of Guare's play and carried by the strong performances of Stokes and Fortunato. While it might not have taken best advantage of HRDC's resources, it is an enjoyable night at the theatre.