The setup: Everybody's either a con man in Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare's acidic comedy of manners, or about to get scammed. Nobody's pure at heart, not in this Manhattan nest of privileged vipers, where everyone seems to reinvent him or herself or to be in desperate need of wanting to, or is oblivious to the need for change. In an utterly delightful and satisfying production, Country Playhouse draws back the veil on the phoniness of these shallow people and reveals the price to be paid for self-examination.
The execution: Flanders and Ouisa (Brian Heaton and Renata Smith) live a charmed life high above Central Park in an aerie filled with pricey works of art (a Kandinsky that figures prominently in their lives hangs aglow on the wall). At first glance, the couple is to be envied; they seem to have everything: They eat at the best restaurants; they go to A-list parties; their kids attend Harvard and Groton; they can drop the most impressive names when it's necessary to drop them -- that's so déclassé, don't you know. For all the high stakes, though, they live on the edge, near debt and self-doubt. An art dealer, Flan sells quality stuff to questionable foreigners in questionable deals. A failed painter, he now sells "commodities."
In their constant pursuit of profit and status, the couple hardly realizes that they've been blindsided big time when a young black man, Paul (Christopher St. Mary), literally barges into their living room, bleeding from a mugging, seeking their help. Their kids are his friends at Harvard, he claims, dropping pertinent facts about them. He knows all the right things to say. Charming and glib, he's got perfect manners. He cooks them dinner, then cleans up afterward. To top it off, he's the son of Sidney Poitier. Who can doubt such a story when told with such silky aplomb by such a perceptive young man? The couple is smitten.
Things go awry quickly under Guare's suave, sure theatrical handling. A hustler bursts out of the guest room, followed by a contrite Paul. Soon, another high-end couple, Kitty and Larkin (Yvonne Nelson and Sam Stengler), relate their tale. They, too, have been taken in by this young man using the same modus operandi; so has Dr. Fine (Lee Honeycutt) from Park Avenue.
But Paul has hit a nerve with Ouisa, and she sets out to find this exemplary con man, using her children, spoiled and ungrateful, as ace detectives. In a flashback, among other effective theatrical devices that Guare sprinkles liberally throughout the play, we discover how Paul has baited his trap by seducing Trent (Logan Varden), another well-heeled student whose acquaintances are the cream of New York society, and stealing his address book after receiving thorough training in how to speak and what to talk about to the upper crust.
Later, Paul sets his sights on a naive couple from Utah, Elizabeth and Rick (Kaylin Zeren and Jose Luiz Rivera), who've just arrived in Manhattan with dreams of their own to remake their lives. This friendship ends in unexpected tragedy, which turns this comedy to the dark side. Paul's serpent in the garden has a deadly sting.
Not knowing his real name nor anything about him, Ouisa can't be sure that the young man, who was arrested downtown and sentenced to Rikers Island, and has committed suicide in prison, is Paul. "He'll turn up again," says Flanders without introspection, gloating over the recent windfall he has just made off the Kandinsky. Ouisa, though, has been changed forever. In the play's most famous speech, she relates how everyone in the world is connected by knowing only six people. The trick is finding the right six. Knowing Paul has stripped away her veneer, or at least the first layer or so; she's the only one who begins to see her life with any clarity. Leaving options open, Guare ends the play on this note of discovery.
Director Jim Tommaney overlays the work with breezy assurance, letting Guare's dramatic touches occur naturally within the artifice. At 90 minutes, this intriguing play zooms along, always fresh and surprising as it prods and provokes.
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Except for a few actors being way too old for their roles as college-aged kids, the large cast is deliciously apt. Heaton, and especially Smith, are ripe studies in urban arrogance. Smith paints her path into knowledge in delicately shaded and subtle tones. In the supporting role of Geoffrey, a rich South African who is being wooed for his money by Flanders.
Houston stage pro Carl Masterson brings exceptional versatility and magnetic stage presence. Even when his character listens, it's a complete study in Acting 101. St. Mary, though, is the linchpin of Guare's inky comedy and he delivers with grace and charm to spare. He's so captivating, we fall into his hands as easily and readily as everybody else. He's definitely one to watch in the future.
The verdict: Six connections are all you need to be close to that gondolier in Venice or the homeless man under the viaduct. We're all related, Guare declares in his jigsaw puzzle play. You don't have to pound the pieces into place to make them fit, just turn the shapes around, or better, flip them over, and the picture comes into view. Scam artists are optional, but sometimes necessary.
John Guare's intriguing play runs through May 25 at Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. Purchase tickets online at countryplayhouse.org or call 713-467-4497. $12-$22.