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Review: Guare's 'Six Degrees' Connects in the Ex

ArtsMonday Review

By Alexandra D. Hoffer

Six Degrees of Separation

Loeb Ex, October 23-25

Six Degrees of Separation, the 1990 play by John Guare, may nowadays be better known from its 1993 movie incarnation, but it visited the Loeb Ex last weekend in its original form. The play tells the story of Paul, a young black man who stumbles into the living room of wealthy New York art dealer Flan and his wife Ouisa. Paul, who tells Flan and Ouisa that he is the son of the famous actor Sidney Poitier and that he goes to Harvard with their children, surprises the couple with his excellent cooking and knowledge of art and literature. After they invite Paul to spend the night, he surprises them once again when he invites a male prostitute to his guest bedroom. Flan and Ouisa soon discover that their guest is a con artist armed with a prep school student’s address book, although Paul steals nothing and seems more attracted to the glamour and sophistication of wealth than to its material pleasures. The play is based on the true story of David Hampton, a Boston man who schmoozed his way into the homes of the wealthy before dying of AIDS last July at the age of 39.

Six Degrees of Separation’s title refers to the (false) notion that every person in the world is connected through a network of acquaintances to every other person in just six links, and the play explores this phenomenon by contrasting Flan and Ouisa’s relationship with Paul—three degrees distant from them—with the one that they have with their children. This is one of the play’s weakest elements: the children make catty remarks to the parents, who in turn neglect them, and that’s just about as far as the family dynamic is ever explored.

More successful, though less plausible, is the play’s tracking of the reactions of the people who have been duped by Paul. Some characters, like Ouisa, see Paul as a talented young man who simply needs an opportunity to legitimately inhabit the world of the wealthy in which he thrives; others, like Flan, consider him a petty thief who should be thrown in jail.

Guare’s source material always stays a hair’s breadth away from quite making sense. Why do the college students balk at tracking down their old classmates, then eventually not only hunt them down but tape-record their conversation? Why does Paul, when given a perfectly good chance to make it in the upper crust, turn it down? The play also features a subplot involving two Utah theater students that peters out without concluding, and an abrupt, unsatisfying ending.

Given these problems, the actors do a remarkably good job at dealing with the text. In particular, Caroline Jackson ’06 as Ouisa projects the bubbliness of a rich socialite while making it clear that her superficiality is nothing more than a projection, masking a warm motherliness beneath. Michael Moss ’03, as Paul, is so flawlessly charming—if anything, too likable for the part—that it can be hard to remember he’s a crook. And Jon Carpenter ’07 portrays Flan as an art dealer struggling to hold on to his love of art while understanding that he’s just a businessman, although his character is saddled with a number of set speeches that never come off as well as his more naturalistic conversations with Ouisa.

Six Degrees of Separation’s production is fairly orthodox, featuring a minimalist but functional design, few sound effects, and some trick lighting that includes unfortunate usage of shadow on backlit cloth. It’s a simple look that lets the actors speak for themselves—not well enough to raise the play to the level of genius, but well enough for an entertaining and mildly thought-provoking night.

—Crimson Arts critic Alexandra D. Hoffer can be reached at hoffer@fas.harvard.edu.

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