‘Six Degrees of Separation’ – The Rich Aren’t So Different (3.5 Stars)

‘Six Degrees of Separation’ – Written by John Guare; Directed by Liz Fenstermaker; Scenic Design by Kevin Deane Parker; Presented by Bad Habit Productions at Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA, 527 Tremont St., Boston, MA through November 22nd.
Anyone who is familiar with the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” movie trivia game is aware of the theory that everyone in the world can be linked to every other person by a chain of no more than six acquaintances. But while it seems perfectly plausible that this is true for the characters in John Guare’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated drama (or any two real people for that matter), the lives of the upper class Kittredges and Paul, the young con artist who runs game on them for a brief few hours, are still light years apart. The rich really may be different from you and me, in that those not raised in the upper class will never truly be equals in the eyes of old money, but at our core, we are all still capable of being the same animal when integrity gets in the way of shiny objects – whether its money or just the need to belong.
That is apparent from the opening scene, when the Kittredges – art dealer Flan and his wife Ouisa – realize that they’ve been hustled by Paul, the preppy African American “student”. Told in flashback with no context, we surmise that they have been victims of a potentially deadly break-in of their apartment, but Flan’s first reaction is, “Is anything gone?” And as the scene progresses, we realize that he cares little for his own or his wife’s safety, at least until he knows his worldly possessions are safe. Those possessions happen to be works of art, but as we soon discover, the couple doesn’t prize the art for its intrinsic value, but rather as an entitled form of currency.
The Kittredges are running their own con game, inviting a wealthy friend over to their home (overlooking Central Park) so that they may secure a $2 million loan to purchase a Cezanne painting that they will flip for a hefty profit to a private collector in Japan. While the couple is conducting their scheme under the guise of friendship, Paul appears at the door with superficial but bloody stab wound. He is a highly sophisticated, apparently well-bred young man who says he is also a close friend of their Harvard student children, and he offers ample evidence of that friendship by sharing details that only a close friend would know – while simultaneously flattering the hell out of the parents. So it certainly seems believable when he tells them that he is the son of the actor Sidney Poitier, and when he blows them away by giving a detailed synopsis of his Master’s thesis on “Catcher in the Rye” and the death of imagination – and then tops that by preparing a gourmet meal out of leftovers – the sheep are ready for fleecing.
But it’s not money he’s after, it’s acceptance, and that is what he (briefly) gains and immediately gives away by scoring a male prostitute and bringing him back to the Kittredge’s home, which they discover to their horror the next morning. But we know no matter how sophisticated and charming he may be, he will never truly be part of the Kittredge’s tribe, even if he were legit. But is he really any different than the Kittredge’s? That’s what this brilliant play asks, and we’re left to contemplate it for ourselves.
Bad Habit Productions staging of this work is a bit uneven, but there’s a lot to like in this production, and the script is still pretty brilliant despite the 80’s setting. As Paul, Elyas Deen Harris is compelling, and does a fairly convincing job posing as an intellectual when he recites his thesis for the Kittredges and their own wealthy mark. But he really shines towards the end when, defeated, he makes a last desperate plea to be part of their lives, despite the havoc that he’s wreaked. Christine Power is also a standout as Ouisa, with the kind of shallow, sophisticated wit and WASPY beauty required of the role. Kevin Deane Parker’s set, while spare, nicely transforms the BCA’s Deane Hall into a Manhattan townhouse. For more info, go to: http://badhabitproductions.org/