Sunday, September 23, 2007

PLAY: "Six Degrees of Separation"

Photo/Jennifer Maufrais

John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is a tough play to revive: there are seventeen roles, but only really three or four parts, and a good director needs to find enough balance to make the show seem evener than it is. Tom Wojtunik, however, looks like he's riding by the seat of his pants, thrusting props onstage with the aid of two gloved Seussian hands, setting large dramatic scenes in elevated boxes within the backstage wall, and letting the actors generally do as they please.

In some places, Wojtunik's style seems natural: the shock value of a naked hustler, say, or the beautifully bookending image of a spinning, double-sided Kandinsky (my favorite artist). In others--particularly with the children, or when there are many characters on stage--the blocking looks staged, and the acting seems forced. For a show that talks about the death of imagination, it's a little worrisome to see so much generic work, but then again, it's hard to flesh out parts that Guare has intentionally underwritten, especially in ninety minutes.

The challenge of Six Degrees of Separation is staying a character and not becoming a point. Too often in this production--as with the four children, the friends of Ouisa and Flan, and the various detectives and policemen--the roles become examples of disconnection, rather than simply people who happen to be disconnected from one another. (Ben Roberts and Jacqueline van Biene, who play two naive lovers from the West, are proof that you can naturally be both a real person and a model of something at the same time.) And while placing phone callers in a raised black box within the wall seems at first like a good device, it makes it less alienating, and leads the actors to overemote.

However, where Guare has focussed his script is also where Wojtunik has done a marvelous job. Ouisa (Laura Heidinger) comes across well as the socialite wife (two millions dollars, two million dollars) who develops a conscience for the world around her, whereas Flan (Mark Hattan) provides a nice balance for her zeal by remaining a cold yet genial realist. As for Paul, Richard Prioleau really makes him seem like an autodidact, the sort of self-made genius who is an expert at fitting pieces together, which in turn allows him to fit in. His transformation from a rough street youth who slurs the word "bottle," into the self-proclaimed son of Sidney Poitier is a rich one, and the only regret is that his big final scene is at a remove, set (like all phone calls) deep against the back wall.

Ultimately, Six Degrees of Separation comes off more as a pleasant production than as a biting look at the meaning of, and connection to, life. The hurried pace of the opening runs out of breath in the sagging middle of the play, and the actors all seem uniformly pleasant, without a scrap of menace or, more unfortunately, presence. The bold exceptions, both in the acting and Wojtunik's direction, only emphasize the separation, and though there are enjoyable moments, I left the theater a little disillusioned.

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