Connected `Separation'

Review: At Center Stage, an effective examination of self-knowledge.

June 25, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Early in John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," the character who calls himself Paul Poitier describes J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" as "a touching story, comic because the boy wants to do so much and can't do anything. Hates all phoniness and only lies to others. Wants everyone to like him, is only hateful, and is completely self-involved."

The other characters don't realize it at the time, but Paul is describing himself. A college-age con artist, Paul is the center of Guare's 1990 social comedy, and he is rivetingly portrayed by Ty Jones in the Maryland Stage Company's production at Center Stage.

When Jones is on stage, you can't take your eyes off him, which is precisely as it should be. In a play set against the backdrop of the New York art world, Paul is a first-rate piece of work. He may not be who he professes to be, but he is a top-notch forgery -- the kind that readily and regularly fools the so-called "experts."

In the play, which is based on an actual event, Paul insinuates himself into homes of several well-to-do New Yorkers by claiming that he knows their children and that he is the son of Sidney Poitier.

Jones' superb performance makes it easy to understand how Paul could win over such slick, jaded Manhattanites as Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, a high-stakes art dealer. For starters, Jones bears a convincing physical resemblance to Poitier, and when supposedly quoting him, he does a creditable imitation of the film star's slight West Indian accent.

More significantly, with his winning smile, impeccable manners and considerable charm, Jones truly comes across as every parent's ideal child (all the more so when we later meet the spoiled, angry, whining offspring of the folks Paul has duped).

But while almost everything about Jones' portrayal is right, Xerxes Mehta's overall direction veers so close to farce, it threatens to upset the balance of the play by turning the characters into near-caricatures. A case in point is Flan Kittredge, who is played by Lawrence Redmond in a waxed mustache and with gestures and facial expressions so broad, they seem better suited to Moliere than Guare.

Wendy Salkind's depiction of Flan's wife, Ouisa, retains more humanity, which is important since Ouisa is the character most affected by and sympathetic to Paul. Mehta, however, goes way over the top by inserting a heavy dose of sexual attraction in a silent scene in which Ouisa watches Paul clear the dinner dishes. Mehta's extrapolation may be funny, but suggesting that Ouisa's interest is largely sexual makes her seem calculating instead of maternal.

Similarly, as Rick and Elizabeth, a young couple from Utah whom Paul befriends in Central Park, Kyle Riley and especially Peggy Yates appear far too hip for a pair of innocents whose faith in Paul leads to tragedy.

Other elements of the production are beautifully conceived, particularly the stylish costumes and sleek set by Elena Zlotescu, an associate artist with the Maryland Stage Company and longtime faculty member at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where the company is based.

The Kittredges' prize possession is a double-sided painting by Wassily Kandinsky. Zlotescu makes this enormous canvas the dominating feature in her Head Theater set, the rest of whose back wall consists of empty frames. Redolent of empty lives, the empty frames complement the richness of the Kandinsky, which is, itself, the perfect metaphor for the play. The abstract shapes on one side of the canvas are bright, harsh and angular; the other side features circles in more muted colors.

Is one side the real or true side, the one that Kandinsky preferred? Or are both sides real and true at once? One of the duped characters in "Six Degrees" keeps insisting, "There are two sides to every story." Guare's play suggests that some of us have so many sides, so many protective layers, that we are out of touch with our own hearts.

Paul wreaks a lot of havoc in "Six Degrees," but he also touches Ouisa's heart, an effect that comes through in Salkind's performance, despite the generally excessive direction. The production ends, as it began, with the Kandinsky slowly revolving on its axis, but this time Salkind revolves with it, as if she is now open and willing to embrace all sides of herself.

Paul may not be the genuine article, but he brings out something genuine in her, something that transcends class and race and cuts to the core of what this splendid play is about -- identity and self-knowledge. The Maryland Stage Company's production has its flaws, but it captures the play's essence. In the end, "Six Degrees" is much more about connection than separation.

`Six Degrees of Separation'

Where: Maryland Stage Company at Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays; matinees 2 p.m. June 27, July 3, 10 and 11. Through July 11

Tickets: $16

Call: 410-481-6500

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