First things first: Six Degrees Of Separation (Theater Latté Da performing at the newly purchased Ritz, through April 9) looks terrific. Yeoperson work has been by the crackerjack design team – Kate Sutton-Johnson (sets); Alice Frederickson (costumes); Barry Browning (lights). Et al. They’ve created a marvelous Upper East Side apartment. Even better (and this is a first for this jaded reviewer): Latté Da has assembled excellent artwork (paintings, photographs, sculptures) and scattered then effectively around the large set. Come a few minutes early and check ’em out.
Second things second: the City – New York, that is – is a major character in John Guare‘s affecting (and disorienting) Six Degrees Of Separation. The main character, Paul – is his last name Poitier? Kittredge? The question is asked but never answered – sits shivering (one imagines) in Central Park, looking up the at the inviting and warmly lit windows. Paul (who is African-American) would do anything – anything – to be part of these loving (he imagines) families. So he stabs himself in the ribcage (claiming a thug did it), then collapses in the entranceway to the sprawling Kittredge ( a wonderful WASP name) apartment. Armed with the sketchiest of information (the first names of the Kittredge children) insinuates himself into the household, cooks a delicious meal, performs a gorgeous recitation of the meaning of Catcher In The Rye, agrees (after a strenuous argument) to stay overnight in the empty bed of one of the Kittredge children.
And yet, New York is a place where love and companionship must be purchased, and this Paul does. He sneaks out, engages the services of a (male) prostitute, Later it’s discovered that he has stolen TVs and money from other people. And he has victimized (is this the appropriate word?) other families.
Who is this man? What does he represent for these (mostly wealthy) people? Do they hate him? Need him? And Paul himself: what does he want? Guare here has created a truly fascinating character.
Paul is played with thoughtful earnestness by the uber-talented JuCoby Johnson. There is a wonderful sense that Paul never expected to get this far and now that he’s arrived he’s unsure what to do. But he wants – he wants, he needs – to keep the charade going. Johnson is soft-spoken, perhaps somewhat to a fault (opening night jitters?). Still, his Paul is beautifully underplayed.
Paul’s last phone call with Mrs. K, in which Paul pleads for acceptance, is gorgeous. Director Peter Rothstein has a way of building to a climax and then staging it simply and quietly. This wrenched my gut for sure.
Veterans Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen play the Kittredges and perfectly capture their over-energized anxiety, about money, their quasi-successful business, their surly children, the City. They prowl – and own – the large set and provide scads of rich comedy. Wonderful.
Okay, I’m out of space and thus unable to wax enthusiastic about the rest of the cast, especially the sullen children with their abrasive sense of entitlement. Know that Six Degrees Of Separation is beautifully acted, intelligently designed and staged, and well worthwhile.
John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book, Tell Me A Story In The Dark, about the magic of bedtime stories, has been published. His The Sisters Eight will be presented at First Stage Milwaukee. His screenplays, A Slaying Song Tonight and The Deflowering Of Father Trimleigh are under option. Please visit his informational website.