A story of life and lies in 'Six Degrees'

March 18, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

In John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," the protagonist claims that the death of the imagination is one of the great tragedies of our time. But his tragedy is that he is unable to imagine the possibilities of his own life. Instead, he attempts to co-opt the lives of others.

Currently at Washington's National Theatre, this challenging, fascinating work is based on the true story of a young con artist who insinuated himself into the lives of several wealthy New York families by pretending he was Sidney Poitier's son.

The play is set in the chic apartment of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, a fictitious art dealer and his wife. Flan is trying to close a deal on a Cezanne with a South African multimillionaire when a young black man named Paul arrives at his door claiming that: 1) he has just been mugged in Central Park, 2) he is a friend of the Kittredges' children, and 3) he is Poitier's son.

Not only do the Kittredges swallow this story as smoothly as if it were fine aged brandy, but they invite Paul to spend the night and give him money (in return, he drinks their brandy and shares his bed with a male prostitute).

As the Kittredges soon learn, they are hardly the only well-meaning, well-to-do New Yorkers who have opened their homes to Paul. Ouisa, however, appears to be the only one who has also opened her heart to him, and the unusual bond that springs up between them is at the core of Guare's intriguing play.

Marlo Thomas proves well-suited to the role of Ouisa. Not only does herinnate cuteness fit the forced charm she exudes in front of her husband's client, but you can feel her struggling and growing as she attempts to come to terms with the uncomfortable emotions she feels toward Paul.

Under the direction of Jerry Zaks, many of the performances seem broader than those of the original cast, but this fits the satiric tone of the play. And even in the midst of an acceptable amount of overstatement, Ned Schmidtke's Flan is distinguished his restraint. One of the sole disappointments is Ntare Mwine's portrayal of Paul; his slick con man is often more irritating than charming, an effect due in part to the sing-songy rhythm with which he delivers Paul's longer speeches.

In New York, "Six Degrees" was presented on a thrust stage, with the supporting actors seated in the front row, as if they were part of the audience. Set designer Tony Walton has tried to reproduce this effect for proscenium venues, but with far less success, since, at least at the National, the front row is all but invisible to most patrons in the orchestra.

At the end of "Six Degrees," Ouisa wonders if it is possible to keep her experience from becoming merely an anecdote. This play not only saves the experience from that fate, but like all good art, it enlarges it. The result converts a news item into a mirror reflecting the priorities and values of the supposedly good-intentioned urban upper class -- in other words, much of the audience.

The title refers to something Ouisa has read claiming everybody on the planet is separated by only six other people. In an interview in the program, Guare addresses the question of whether this play is too specific to a certain segment of East Side New York society. After seeing it at the National, the answer is that it couldn't be more at home in recently liberated liberal Washington.


What: "Six Degrees of Separation"

Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays. Through April 4.

Tickets: $27.50-$42.50.

dTC Call: (202) 628-6161.

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