Six Degrees of Separation
John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” is a play that has garnered large audiences, positive reviews, and numerous awards. It is noted both because it is a literate script that captures many dimensions of modern society, and because it popularized the notion of social connectedness via the numerical algorithm that the title represents. Noteworthy, however, is that the unique storyline draws directly from a real life sequence of events in which friends of Guare’s were victimized. What’s more, the “theory” that each person on earth is connected to every other person by no more than six personal linkages was posited by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy in 1929. Guare’s play may thus seem derivative and lacking in originality, yet it is entertaining and thought provoking. So, too, is Custom Made’s current production.
It is 1990. Flan is a private placement dealer in high value art pieces. He is witty and effete and every inch the cosmopolitan. Matt Weiner fits the part like a glove, with the exception that rather than portraying a sensitive individual with artistic sensibilities, he is made to be a bit too melodramatic. His wife, Ouisa, is a drama queen, played over the top by the flamboyant, but endearing Genevieve Perdue. They live in a style envied by most, with a ritzy apartment across from Central Park in New York City; a business that Flan controls without having to deal with superiors or subordinates; a rare and valuable two-sided Kandinsky painting; and a social standing with hob nobbers. There is the $2 million investment that Flan desperately needs to secure from a wealthy South African in order to close his next deal and keep the creditors at bay, but many of us have similar obstacles to overcome.
One night, a knock on Flan and Ouisa’s door reveals a youthful, polished black man named Paul seeking help. Khary Moye is Paul, and he is convincing as the well-presented, quick-thinking exemplar of the contemporary, young black man. He claims to have been robbed and is bleeding from a stab wound in his side. Why would the couple take the young man in and invite him to spend the night? First, because he says he is good friends with their two children at Harvard, providing credible information about the kids and identifying some of the couple’s Fifth Avenue neighbors, and second because he has to meet his father the following morning, and his father happens to be Sydney Poitier.
What follows is a series of cons and denouements that may be somewhat predictable, yet are fun to watch. While we deride Flan and Ouisa for being so gullible, we understand how unctuous charm can persuade and how idol worship, even with one degree of separation, can impair judgment. We also empathize with them as they get a level of respect and a warm humanity from Paul that they wish their own children would express toward them. But Guare might be going for more. For instance, what if the insinuator had been white instead of black, female instead of male, old instead of young? How does the social response differ? And when we find that Paul’s perpetrations are petty in value (though not always in consequence), do we think differently of him and his victims than if he were going for the big money?
This production is played with high energy and near farcical affect but seems to follow the playwright’s intent, including the breaking of the fourth wall multiple times. The single, unchanging set is limited to a simplified drawing room in Flan and Ouisa’s apartment, though some scenes actually take place in low-rent flats and out of doors. The costumery of the older generation is largely dressy black and white, while the younger characters are understandably casual. Lighting is active and sometimes dramatic, and sound includes appropriate music of the time.
One unusual conceit is that while action takes place downstage, actors in smaller roles are seated in their black and white and observing from a row upstage. This device makes it a little harder to suspend the disbelief of watching a play rather than experiencing reality, and the lineup gives the odd impression of the stage at a graduation ceremony with each honoree waiting to be called to the podium.
Nonetheless, for those of us who can relate to 1990, the play engages us. Younger audience members accustomed to instantaneous 24/7 communication and social media, which actually demonstrates the concept of degrees of separation, might find it difficult to understand how Paul’s ruse was not uncovered more quickly. Yet the plot, while strange, is true to the extent that the real “Paul” unsuccessfully sued John Guare for appropriating his life story for financial gain.
“Six Degrees of Separation” is produced by Custom Made Theatre and plays at 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco, through June 18, 2016.