Deceit seldom looks so good

September 29, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

"I believe the imagination is the passport we create to take us into the real world," says the character who calls himself Paul Poitier in John Guare's slick, fascinating drama "Six Degrees of Separation."

Paul puts this belief into practice in the play, which is receiving a stunningly assured production under Steve Goldklang's direction at Fell's Point Corner Theatre. Posing as Sidney Poitier's son, Paul wheedles his way into the homes of sophisticated, well-to-do, liberal New Yorkers.

Based on news accounts of a real-life con artist, this is highly theatrical subject matter. But that doesn't mean it's easy to stage. Not only does the script call for a cast of 17, but the action is nonlinear, and scenes take place in numerous locations. And, oh yes, there's also a bit of profanity and nudity -- particularly tricky to deal with on the little theater level.

As Paul, Martin Ruof is sufficiently charming for us to understand how he was able to con people, but he's also emotionally needy enough to earn a degree of sympathy.

That, in turn, helps us sympathize with the people he dupes. Chief among those is Ouisa Kittredge, the stylish wife of a high-stakes art dealer. With the exception of enigmatic Paul, Ouisa is the play's most complicated character. She's also the only one who shows genuine concern for this disturbed young man, and Trisha Blackburn's probing portrayal is at the heart of this production.

Though the other characters are less crucial, most cast members deliver competent performances, including Harry Turner as Ouisa's husband, Jim Dockery as his wealthy client, and Laura Cosner and Adam Stringer as the Kittredges' angry, exasperated children. Melissa Meyd is touching as another of Paul's victims, but as her boyfriend, Tony Gallahan needs to convey far more angst if his character's fate is to be convincing.

In addition to its appealing theatricality, its mystery angle and the intriguing theme of appearances vs. reality, "Six Degrees" raises several more complex issues. Guare questions the meaning of fame and success, the boundaries of friendship and familial love, and the nature of motivation. Most of all, he questions our sense of identity and how it connects -- and separates -- us from others.

The Kittredges own a double-sided painting by Kandinsky. Before the play begins, we see it slowly spinning, and Paul refers to it in the play's final line. As a metaphor, it could be suggesting that people are two-faced or, in a more positive light, that they have more than one side. Most likely, Guare intended both interpretations, as well as the shadings in between. It is indicative of the strength of this production that you find yourself pondering such things long after the play is over.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Six Degrees of Separation"

Where: Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 30

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 276-7837

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