VpStart Crow Six Degrees of SeparationBy Bob Ashby • May 14th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Gregory Family Theatre, Manassas, VA
Through May 20th
1:40, without intermission
$20/$15 Students and Seniors
Reviewed May 12th, 2012
What is more all-American than a good con? Novels, plays, and movies are full of them: Tom Sawyer, The Music Man, The Sting, Elmer Gantry, The Talented Mr. Ripley, to name a few, not to mention real-life tricksters and fraudsters who became prominent parts of popular culture, from P.T. Barnum to Bernie Madoff. Two things are necessary to run a good con: a clever, psychologically astute con man and a mark who is not only credulous but willing, almost eager, to be deceived.
In John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, now on view at VpStart Crow in Manassas, the con man is Paul (Chaz D. Pando), a young, smart, adaptable, gay, needy, black man who weaves his way into the stereotypically empty lives of shallow, pretentious, affluent, white New Yorkers. Paul readily convinces them that he is the son of Sidney Poitier, who is coming to New York to cast a movie of Cats. With his dignified demeanor, soft-spoken words, and obvious intelligence, Pando’s Paul is someone who could be thought credible as a son of Poitier (though anyone’s belief in the preposterous Cats story can be understood only as comic exaggeration on the playwright’s part).
Paul is by far Guare’s most interesting character, who is always playing one made-up role after another, and who cannot stop playing a fictional role even when, near the end of the play, things are falling apart for him. Pando gives a very assured, controlled performance that is at the center of the production, portraying not only his character’s ability to cast a spell — as in a spectacular monologue on the meaning and implications of Catcher in the Rye — but also his inability to find an identity and reality of his own. Careless of the hurt he causes others, he has a streak of self-destructiveness, graphically shown as he stabs himself as part of the story he uses to gain entrée to the homes of other characters. A strong point of the Guare’s writing, and Pando’s interpretation, of the character is that his motivations remain elusive and enigmatic, though a desire for the lifestyle he sees among the wealthy is surely involved (his actual thefts barely get him out of petit larceny territory).
The product Paul sells is the appearance of meaningful human contact, instinctively tailored to the needs of each individual he encounters, and his marks can’t get enough. Paul’s initial targets are a wealthy art speculator, Flan Kittredge (Darren Maquardt), and his wife Ouisa (Lisa Anne Bailey). Flan, who knows and perhaps once truly loved art, now views it principally as a commodity. Ouisa, kin to “the ladies who lunch” of Sondheim’s great song from Company, finds few sources of satisfaction in her life. As Paul appeals to Flan’s eagerness to rub elbows with celebrity and Ouisa’s unmet need to be needed, the couple falls easily into his web.
It is Ouisa who explains the meaning of the play’s title, the notion that no one is more than six connections from anyone else in the world. I hope that Guare did not believe this to be a profound insight. Even if true, the idea is trivial, grist for little more than cocktail conversation. (There is, in fact, a “six degrees” party game, focused on actor Kevin Bacon.) An example: I am occasionally part of meetings involving the Secretary of Transportation, who in turn attends Cabinet meetings. I suppose this means that I am only two degrees removed from President Obama. So what? This has no real meaning in my life, let alone the President’s.
Marquardt’s brusque Flan ultimately is not deeply affected emotionally by the play’s events, content to bask in financial success and the thrill of taking risks as a commodities trader in art. Ouisa, on the other hand, comes to need almost desperately the feeling of connection she gets from Paul. Especially in what appears to be an elaborate rescue fantasy, spun out in a long phone call during which Paul continues to play, almost woo, her, she finds a sense of the authentic experience of life she otherwise lacks, including in her relationship with her sitcom-type bratty children. This leads Ouisa to ask serious questions about her marriage and the way she has lived her life, which Bailey expresses in the form of Ouisa’s over-the-top rant to her husband near the play’s conclusion.
The show includes a number of smaller character roles. Among them, Matt Marcus stands out as Trent, a gay college student who is bewitched by Paul and gives him the information about his friends’ families that enables Paul’s con. David Schmidt, as a South African businessman who finances Flan’s latest art deal; Mike Rudden as Rick, Paul’s most tragic mark; and Sarah Farris as Elizabeth, Rick’s girlfriend (and the only potential victim grounded enough to resist Paul’s blandishments) also deserve mention. Other roles, while competently acted, are often little more than types.
The show is performed in the round, in an intimate space that affords excellent sight lines. Director Rob Batarla moves the cast smartly around the set, ensuring that patrons on all sides get the benefit of direct address by the actors. One scene, where parents and children swirl rapidly in circles around the furniture, seemed overly busy, and there were a few scenes (e.g., the Paul-Trent scene) that could have benefited from a more measured pace.
As befits a production in the round, the set is simple, consisting of a living room sofa and chairs (one hopes that a high-end art dealer would have more tasteful furniture than the Kittridges’ tiger-stripe upholstery). Kudos to Jean Gentry’s props design for use of good period cordless telephones. The lighting design is simple but effective, with specials in the corners of the playing area augmenting the general area lighting. The sound design makes extensive use of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, creating an appropriate tone of refinement for the play’s upper class milieu.
When the play premiered in 1990, it garnered some excellent reviews, including a rave from the New York Times‘ Frank Rich. Perhaps the topical impact of the play has diminished in subsequent decades, but while Gaure wrote some interesting characters and intelligent, sometimes witty, dialogue, the depths that Rich found in the original production were not apparent in the VpStart Crow version. While falling short of the “instant classic” claims for the play, the production’s very competent acting and strong pacing will hold an audience’s interest.
Look around the theater and I bet you are connected to everyone in the room by at least six degrees. Well, probably less. You may know someone in the show. And the lady over to your left knows someone too. You two are three degrees apart. See how easy it is? Or is it scary? For me personally, I am four degrees to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, five degrees to Academy Award winner Catherine Zeta-Jones, and only two degrees to former Vice-President Al Gore. And those are just the ones I know! Speaking of Facebook, a recent report noted that because of the social media website, the actuality of degrees of connection has decreased to 4.74. We are all closer than ever.
With elements of comedy and tragedy, John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation is, at its core, the telling of a story about this basic human need for connection and, because we are telling the story in the round, you will get to live the story from every angle. We have also taken some theatrical liberties in story telling that I hope you appreciate, all in an effort to enhance the story telling.
On a personal note, I would like to extend many thanks to a lot of people who made this production possible. I have been wanting to stage this show for over 10 years now, and I am very pleased with this group of actors and collaborators who helped me bring this show to life.
Enjoy the show!
- Ouisa: Lisa Bailey
- Flan: Darren Marquardt
- Geoffrey: David Schmidt
- Paul: Chaz Pando
- Hustler: Kevin Walker
- Kitty: Carole Preston
- Larkin: Eric Trumbull
- Detective: Shellie Jablonowski
- Tess: Kimberlee Wolfson
- Woody: Ben Jablonowski
- Ben: Joshua Dickinson
- Dr. Fine: Geoffrey Baskir
- Doug: Clemente Santiago
- Police/Doorman: Dan Clark
- Trent: Matt Marcus
- Rick: Mike Rudden
- Elizabeth: Sarah Ferris
- Director: Rob Batarla
- Assistant Director: Rachel Murray
- Producer: Jean Gentry
- Stage Manager: Leandra Lynn
- Assistant Stage Manager: Rachel Thompson
- Technical Director: Dan Clark
- Set Designer: Rob Batarla
- Lighting Designer: Ryan Johnston
- Sound Designer: Rob Batarla
- Properties: Jean Gentry
Disclaimer: VpStart Crow provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8063.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.