Six Degrees of Separation
Signal Ensemble Theater

1993 Olivier Award - Best Play
New York Drama Critics Circle Award

", like a quick intake of breath" - Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune 12/12/08
1993 Olivier Award - Best Play
New York Drama Critics Circle Award

11/17/08 - 12/21/08

Thu-Sat 8p; Sun 3p

A sharp 'Separation' from reality – Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune 12/12/08

“One of my favorite bloggers right now is a guy named Justin Wolfe, who comments on reality television. Reality show cast members, he writes, have their "fake lives intertwined with their real lives." And in the end, the distinction might be irrelevant: "Image is the reality and reality is the image."

It's an astute observation, I think, about the power of perception. All experiences are authentic even if the underlying facts are bogus. Playwright John Guare tackles this very conundrum in "Six Degrees of Separation," the drama he wrote in 1990, well before reality TV, about a young con man (the excellent Bryson Engelen) who worms his way into New York's upper crust by passing as an Ivy Leaguer and Sidney Poitier's son.

The play (later made into a film starring Will Smith) might be Guare's best-known work, and the current production from Signal Ensemble is sharp, like a quick intake of breath. Engelen knows just how to turn on the charm, oblivious to the destructive impact he has on the lives of others.

His character is smart but dumb. A beautiful package containing something rotten inside. A seducer with his nose pressed up against the glass. We all live with duality. Which is the real you? And how many degrees of separation are there distancing you from the person in the mirror? Or to quote Wolfe's blog again, "If you fake it in real life, you make it real." There's something to that.

Susie Griffith, in her classy black sheath and black patent stilettos, plays the one character who is truly shaken by her experiences with this young man, and she gives the role a nice mix of elegance and awkward introspection. (Tim Martin, as her grown son, makes the most of his brief but hilarious rant about his favorite pink shirt that his parents gave to this fraud like it was nothing. Nothing!)

Director Ronan Marra stages the show in-the-round—or rather, in a square. It's a bit like a boxing ring. The jabs aren't literal, they're more subtle, personal. The cast is at ease with Guare's syntax, a highly erudite but piercing examination of privilege and desperation. Harvard is described as a place where kids are in a constant state of "luxurious despair and constant discovery."

Money is on the mind a lot these days, but validation might be more seductive than a flush bank account. And Guare shows us just how much that can cost.

Six Degrees of Separation - Zac Thompson, TimeOut Chicago 11/26/08

When David Hampton—the notoriously raffish con man who inspired Guare’s most popular play—died of AIDS complications in 2003, The New York Times quoted one of his last victims. The man had gone on a date with Hampton in 2001, during which the swindler managed to finagle $1,000 for a phony September 11 celebrity benefit before sneaking off, leaving his date with a $423 dinner tab. But “Honestly?” said the mark. “It was one of the best dates that I ever went on.”

Evidently, Hampton maintained his beguiling knack for separating urbanites from their money long after Guare dramatized, in 1990, Hampton’s most impressive scam, that of persuading members of Manhattan’s upper crust to take him in as the son of Sidney Poitier. Of course, Guare is interested in more than the attractions of one con artist; he uses the story both to poke fun at and commiserate with his real subject: the well-meaning but somewhat lost liberal rich.

The play’s success in performance hinges on whether we buy that Paul (the Hampton character) could charm the pants and pocketbook off pretty much anyone. On that account, Marra’s otherwise lively production fails: Engelen brings to the character a childlike sincerity that justifies the older characters’ parental concern for him, yet there’s nothing irresistibly seductive about his Paul. As the principal scamees, Griffith and Steinhagen display some comic timing but lack the necessary air of patrician breeding troubled by liberal guilt.

Six Degrees of Separation - Kerry Reid, Chicago Reader 11/26/08

John Guare's 1990 based-on-fact drama, about a well-spoken young black man who cons well-heeled white Manhattan liberals into believing he's Sidney Poitier's son, feels worn around the edges. For one thing, in our age of Google, someone would have discovered the truth behind "Paul Poitier" far sooner. Ronan Marra's staging for Signal Ensemble Theatre has a handle on Guare's wit, but the darker aspects of the story don't gel. The ensemble sometimes overplays the stereotypes (particularly with regard to the liberal's bratty kids), and Susie Griffith doesn't completely unpeel the loneliness and vulnerability in Ouisa, the socialite who develops sympathy for Paul. But Jon Steinhagen as Ouisa's nervous, art-dealing husband, and Bryson Engelen as Paul, reveal layers of self-doubt amid the shell game.

Six Degrees of Separation – Monica Westin, NewCity Chicago 11/14/08

“Signal Ensemble’s well-designed, fast-moving production of John Guare’s modern classic about intimacy, identity and our obligations to other human beings succeeds in bringing to life the play’s characters and humor but misses the mark emotionally. The problem starts immediately with the first scene of a frantic Upper East Side couple struggling to come to terms with being taken in by a young black con artist who calls himself Paul; their absurd search for possessions and posturing in his-and-hers satin robes and dress shoes sets a farcical tone that’s further underscored throughout the show, especially with the appearance of the younger generation in the play, over-the-top spoiled college students who squawk without restraint at their parents; and a funny but utterly distracting chase scene between the rich couple and a totally nude male prostitute whom Paul has brought to their home. The problem with these elements of absurdity and spectacle is that they eclipse the important relationship of the play, which is that of Paul and the wife who comes to feel responsible for him, even to love him (and whose line “I am a collage of unaccounted-for brushstrokes” glosses this production better than her famous monologue about the torture of human relationships) These two actors, especially Bryson Engelen in a admirable performance, struggle to express their connection, but by then the audience is just waiting for the next laugh”.

Winner of the 1993 Olivier Award for Best Play and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award
No subject is left untouched in this comic, fast-paced and affecting piece. The title refers to a statistical theory which states that any two people in the world can be connected through only six other people. The play is an examination of the threads of chance that link one person to another.

"Among the many remarkable aspects of Mr. Guare's writing is the seamlessness of his imagery, characters and themes, as if this play had erupted from his own imagination in one perfect piece." - NY Times

"SIX DEGREES is the best American play of the past several seasons, and will do hot business wherever it goes." - Variety

"...cunningly executed, seemingly seamlessly joined, interlarded with clever one-liners, alternating comic situations with mildly disturbing ones...SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION is a play about everything, with something in it for everyone..." NY Magazine

John Guare

Ronan Marra

Susie Griffith (Ouisa); Jon Steinhagen (Flan); Vincent L. Lonergan (Geoffrey); Bryson Engelen (Paul); Tucker Curtis (Doorman); Kevin D'Ambrosio (Hustler); Roxanne Saylor (Kitty); Dan Taube (Larkin); Stephen Camara (Detective); Katie Genualdi (Tess); Tim Martin (Woody); Nick Mikula (Ben); Joe Mack (Dr. Fine); Tucker Curtis (Policeman); Eric Lindahl (Trent); Simone Roos (Elizabeth); and Aaron Snook (Ricky).

Set Design - Melania Lancy; Costume Design - Laura M. Dana; Light Design - Mark Hurni; Sound Design - Anthony Ingram; Violence Coordinator - Ehren Fournier; Properties - Sarah Elizabeth M.; and Production Stage Manager - Barry Branford

Tags: Theater, American, 2008