Sixth Degree Burn
Tony-winner John Guare's glittering lines lost in lackluster production.
Thursday, December 14, 2000
One of the key speeches in John Guare''s Six Degrees of Separation is delivered by Ouisa Kittredge (Marlie Avant in a fine performance). She marvels at the ways in which human beings are connected to one another. In fact, she gushes, there are no more than six degrees of separation between any two people on Earth.
The beauty of Ouisa''s realization is the compassion that comes of it, even toward someone who has wronged you. The tragedy is that she is unable to grasp the connections of those much closer to her. And therein lies the flaw in this uneven yet still compelling production directed by Conrad Selvig as the final offering in Monterey Peninsula College''s chronological exploration of 20th-century America theater: We see the sixth- degree connections, but first-degree separations don''t quite make it to the stage.
Claiming to have been mugged in the park near their home, a black con artist named Paul (Casey Jackson) appears at the door of wealthy art dealer Flan Kittredge (James Brady). Flan and wife Ouisa (Marlie Avant) are entertaining friend and potential investor Geoffrey (Peter Eberhardt). Paul passes himself as a Harvard school chum of the couple''s kids. He also claims to be the son of Sidney Poitier.
Paul is asked to stay. In the middle of the night, the Kittredges discover him in a compromising situation with a hustler (Brendon Godfrey). In horror, they eject him and later discover that their children have never heard of him. Later, comparing notes with friends, they realize they haven''t been the only ones deceived. In fact, Paul is a kind of Goldilocks of grifters--he tries one new victim after another until he finds one that is "just right."
Paul is connected to the Kittredges through Trent (Max Kanat-Alexander), a boarding school pal of their children. Trent, in turn for sexual favors, gives Paul inside info about the Kittredges and other wealthy Manhattanites. We are connected through channels known and unknown, and sometimes in ways we refuse to see.
The Kittredges become concerned over Paul''s fate, even going so far as to promise to visit him in prison and help him when he gets out. This is admirable, liberal and compassionate, and we are especially sympathetic to them when we meet their hostile children, Tess (Jennifer Muniz) and Woody (Brendon Godfrey). But hostile children are not born, they are made. By presenting Tess and Woody as one-dimensional characters, we miss some of the real tragedy here.
The Kittredges can recognize the desperation, the angst, the cry for help of a newly introduced young African-American man, but are unable to see very deeply into the souls and minds of their own offspring. At one point, Ouisa says of Paul, "He did more for us in a few hours than our own children did." One could argue the reverse as well.
Potentially the most poignant, funny monologue is delivered by Woody, simultaneously a spoiled boy rant and a cry from the heart. Unfortunately, the speech about a pink shirt, as well as most intra-familial action, is presented without much subtext and we are left scratching our heads as to what exactly playwright Guare is trying to get at here.
With the exceptions of Brady, Avant and Jackson, performances are uneven and at times lackluster. The pacing also is problematic. The show ran about 10 minutes long the night this critic attended and, given its presentational style, needs to snap along more quickly.
Still, the set is the show''s biggest obstacle. Environment is important for both actors and audience. The dark geometric platforms and narrow staggered openings constituting the play areas are reminiscent of catacombs or a futuristic Star Chamber, and the Kittredges'' living room looks like a hotel lobby.
Nevertheless, the story is compelling and the three lead performances worth the price of the ticket. Even with its problems, Six Degrees of Separation is one of the more interesting offerings of the season.
Six Degrees of Separation plays the Morgan Stock Stage at the MPC Theater, 980 Fremont, Monterey. Thursday 7pm, Friday-Saturday 8pm and Sunday 2pm. It closes this weekend. Tickets cost $15. 646-4213.