I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everybody else on this planet. I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It’s a profound thought.”
It’s also a comforting thought to Louisa “Ouisa” Kittredge, who feels very little connection to anyone in her life, neither to her cold fish of an art dealer husband, nor to her ungrateful young-adult children.
Then, for the briefest of moments, Paul Poitier enters her life, and she finds herself changed for good.
John Guare’s Tony-nominated, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award-winning Six Degrees Of Separation has been one of my favorite plays ever since its 1993 national tour, with Marlo Thomas in the role created by Tony-nominee Stockard Channing.
Thomas and Channing (who received an Oscar nomination for her performance in the fine, faithful film version) are hard acts to follow, but Joanna Churgin’s performance in Kentwood Players’ Six Degrees revival is right up at that level—and just one of many reasons to not to miss this outstanding production.
Paul Poitier, son of Sydney (or so he claims), arrives at Ouisa and Flan’s Upper West Side New York apartment one evening, the apparent victim of a mugging. His arrival catches the Kittredges mid-deal with a South African multimillionaire. Introducing himself as a friend of Ouisa and Flan’s two Harvard-attending offspring, Paul impresses the Kittredges with his European brand of politeness, his erudite manner of speaking, and his Hollywood family ties. He talks about his famous father, opines on Catcher In The Rye and the concept of imagination, and whips up a scrumptious dinner for the Kittredges and their guest. Paul then accepts their offer that he stay the night pending his father’s arrival at the Sherry Netherland the following morning. Soon after, the fireworks (and the mystery) begin.
Who is this Paul Poitier and what does he want from the Kittredges? Flan would love nothing more than to forget that Paul ever entered their lives. Ouisa refuses to let go. One glimpse of their selfish, self-centered, ungrateful children Woody and Tess and it’s pretty clear why. In that one evening, Paul was more of a son than Ouisa’s own has ever been, and regardless of where her search takes her, she will persevere until she finds the truth … and the missing Paul. With only six degrees of separation, that ought to be possible, right?
Ouisa’s investigation involves the Kittredges’ good friends Kitty and Larkin, Tess and Woody’s former high school classmates Ben, Doug, and Trent, Doug’s father Dr. Fine, and a pair of recent Salt Lake City-to-New York transplants—would-be actors Rick and Elizabeth. Playwright Guare tells his tale in flashbacks narrated by Ouisa and Flan. As in the original production, most of the cast remains seated onstage throughout the performance, rising only when it’s their turn to enter the action. Though the Kentwood Players production doesn’t yet “go like the wind” per Guare’s production notes (some pauses could be shortened, some cues picked up more quickly), it is nonetheless an impressive one, and one that demonstrates the caliber community theater can achieve in a city with a talent pool as deep and wide as Los Angeles’s.
Ken MacFarlane does first-rate work as business-centric Flan, but even on paper Six Degrees belongs to Ouisa and Paul, and director Don Schlossman couldn’t have found a better pair than Churgin and Willie Mack Daniels for the roles. Churgin is absolutely brilliant, combining intelligence, wit, warmth, and longing in a performance that stands out, even amongst the outstanding work surrounding her. Daniels is a real find, giving the mystery man a sweetness and depth that Ouisa finds irresistible. He does a spot-on imitation of Sydney Poitier, and his final scene opposite the divine Churgin is as powerful as it gets.
Supporting roles are filled equally splendidly. Mark Mayes does excellent, understated work as Geoffrey, and his South African accent is impeccable. Ginny Kunz and Jack Coppock are delightful as the bickering Kitty and Larkin, and a hilarious Michael-Anthony Nozzi makes the very most of his brief scenes as the blustering, self-important Dr. Fine. All four ungrateful kids (Tara Jean O’Brien, Nick Alspaugh, Kevin T. King, and Andy Grosso) are terrific, and funny as can be. Lorenzo Bastien is entirely convincing—and a treat—as Trent, one of Paul’s more willing victims. As Utahans Rick and Elizabeth, Ryan Knight and Meredith M. Sweeny have two of the play’s best monologs, which they deliver to perfection. Marco Garcia (Hustler) deserves highest marks for his uninhibited performance in one of the funniest nude scenes ever staged. Drew Fitzsimmons (Detective) and Dylan H. Bailey (Policeman/Doorman) complete the cast in fine fashion.
Director Schlossman merits kudos for his understanding of Guare’s words and intentions and for conveying this understanding to his cast. Joel Castro’s black-and-red set design looks great, and fits the playwright’s vision to a T. Hilda Outwater’s lighting design couldn’t be better, nor could costume designer Valerie Wright’s choice of outfits for the cast. Sound designer Susan Stangl underscores the action with an excellently chosen musical soundtrack, though the rain during the Trent-Paul scene drowns out Bastien, who could also up the volume a notch.
Only the anachronistic use of cell phones jars. Since Six Degrees Of Separation is so clearly set in a pre-Internet, pre-AIDS cocktail, pre-cell phone era, they should be jettisoned asap, especially Doug’s ear phone. In the original production, per Guare’s instructions, “no one mimes handling a phone. They just talk.” Works for me.
Kentwood Players deserves the deepest admiration for having undertaken a production as challenging as Six Degrees Of Separation—challenging not just to a cast and director (a challenge which has been met) but also to the older, more conservative audience that community theater tends to attract. There is R-rated language, full-frontal male nudity, and a passionate kiss between two men. Hopefully Kentwood audiences can meet Guare’s challenge, because if they do, they are in for a gripping evening of theater.
Kentwood Players’ production of Six Degrees Of Separation more than exceeded my expectations. It had me laughing from the get-go and crying by its emotional finale, and is worth seeing if only for Churgin’s stellar performance. That she gets excellent support from MacFarlane, Daniels, and the entire rest of the cast is even more reason not to miss Six Degrees. This is community theater at its very best.
Kentwood Players, 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Through February 13.
January 8, 2010
Photos: Shari Barrett