We’ve all heard of this idea before—that there are six degrees of separation between everyone in the universe, from the president of the U.S. to a “gondolier in Venice.” John Guare’s play, named after this theory, has all the makings of a farce playing on this idea: a rich, middle-aged, overexcited white couple are fascinated by the stories of a young black man, supposedly a friend of their children from college, who turns out not to be who he says he is. But this play, aided by a brilliant production by The Keegan Theatre, tells us time and time again not to get too comfortable with our expectations of this work because we are sure to be surprised again.
The story is told directly to the audience, first by the flustered Ouisa and Flan Kittredge (Susan Marie Rhea and Ray Ficca). Director Brandon McCoy proves himself to be a master storyteller, making the shifts between breaking the fourth wall and building it up again so smooth as to maintain the fluidity of the play. Rhea and Ficca set up the comical beginnings in their attempts to make a two-million-dollar deal with South African business associate Geoffrey (Kevin Adams). Their two-sided Kandinsky painting is set at the back of the stage, with the ability to rotate, “for variety.” But their comfortable world is called into question with the appearance of “Paul” (Ryan Swain), who appears after having just been stabbed in a mugging.The trio is enthralled by Paul, who with great earnestness talks about his thesis on The Catcher in the Rye and growing up with his father, Sidney Poitier. The next morning, the Kittredges are in for a nasty shock when they discover some things about Paul they wish they had not…and so begins a desperate search for answers that they may never find.
Things become more complex when others come forward as having been taken in by Paul—first, friends of the Kittredges, Kitty and Larkin (Karen Novack and Jon Townson), then people whose connections are not immediately apparent: Dr. Fine (in this performance played by Daniel Lyons) and a young couple, Rick and Elizabeth (Matthew Sparacino and Kathleen Mason).
Josh Sticklin plays the detective who attempts to get to the bottom of the story, aided by clues provided by the doorman (in this performance played by Mark A. Rhea). It’s all connected to the children somehow, whose varying degrees of snottiness and adolescent angst are brought out by cast members Christian Montgomery, Ava Knox, Eli Pendry, and Jonathan Helwig. Trent (Patrick Joy) appears to hold the key. But the only one who really has all the answers is Paul himself, whose many faces, from the charming Harvard graduate to the determined young con are brought to life by Ryan Swain, whose presence, as well as his bond with Ouisa, steal the show. For better or worse, Paul touches the lives of everyone he meets, shattering illusions that some would rather have maintained.
Matthew Keenan’s set, comprised of art-gallery-like white walls provide the perfect canvas for Lighting Designer Colin Dieck’s little trick: back-lighting actors through the canvas so only their silhouettes are visible performing actions to illustrate the passage of time as well as a few key moments of the play, some less savory than others.
Costume Designer Kristina Marie Martin perfectly sets the tone of the early-90’s rich white characters, as well as the people they did not expect to encounter. Brandon McCoy’s sound design works together with the lights to highlight moments of the play such as Paul’s impassioned intellectual speeches, as well as darker moments that crop up later on.
John Guare’s play is a work that defies expectations at every turn, keeping us guessing until the very end. The Keegan Theatre’s production will make audiences laugh and break their hearts all at once, leaving us hoping that we lead better lives than the ones we see portrayed here.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Six Degrees of Separation plays through December 3, 2016, at the Keegan Theatre – 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 265-3767, or purchase them online.