`Six Degrees of Separation' may bring us all together

Dignity Players gives impressive performance of Guare's play


May 11, 2007

Dignity Players launched its 2007 season May 4 with John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, providing a fascinating evening of theater meticulously delivered.

The 1990 play is based on an incident in which a wealthy New York couple welcomed Paul, a man who claimed that he was the son of Sidney Poitier and a friend of their son at Harvard, into their home. After discovering their guest had lied, Ouisa and Flan Kittredge re-evaluate their own lives.

The title is based on the implausible principle that everyone is connected through a chain of six people. This theory might have made sense to a quintessential New Yorker like the late Leonard Bernstein or to Woody Allen, but I can accept it only in terms of this play, where in a minimalist set of only two chairs, a poor young black man arrives after being mugged in Central Park.

Paul establishes a rapport with Ouisa, the wife of a successful Upper East Side art dealer. Together they break through racial and class barriers that eventually force them to confront the degrees of separation in their relationship. Perhaps Ouisa and Flan also assume false identities as they charm their South African guest, financier Genevieve, to invest $2 million in an art scheme.

Mickey Handwerger, co-founder of Dignity Players, directed the play.. The troupe's intimate theater and small stage space at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis demand strong acting skills to simulate reality. Actors are seated in the first row with easy access to the stage to maintain fast pacing. The set has only one significant prop - the two-sided Kandinsky canvas portraying chaos on one side and control on the other along with perhaps a number of other dualities.

Most demanding is the role of Ouisa, well-played by Sue Struve, who easily makes the transition from a suspicious host to a fiercely compassionate maternal figure who pleads with her husband Flan to help create a new life for Paul.

The always reliable Richard McGraw gives another of his thoughtful, fully dimensional portrayals in the unsympathetic role of art dealer, hustler and gambler Flan, who seems most alive when making deals and least comfortable relating to his children.

This play is dialogue-heavy, albeit clever and hip. At the preview last Thursday, Rick Peele as Paul sometimes recited his lines without much feeling, particularly in earlier scenes with the Kittredges. Later, Peele became more convincing, delivering a masterful discourse on J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye and establishing a strong rapport with Struve's Ouisa and the younger actors.

As the wealthy, liberal South African Genevieve, Carol Cohen delivers a solid, convincing and nuanced performance.

Of the young supporting players, I found Jamie Hanna's Trent Conway riveting. The young innocent couple newly arrived in Manhattan in search of an acting career - Heather Quinn as Elizabeth and Robby Rose - also left a powerful impression.

Performances continue at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow and 2 p.m. Sunday at Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, 333 Dubois Road. Tickets cost $20 on Friday and Saturday and $10 Sunday. Students and senior citizens receive a $5 discount for any performance. 410-266-8044 x 127 or www.dignityplayers.com.

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