Like many hit plays, Six Degrees of Separation is set among Manhattan’s elite. However, this multifaceted gem by John Guare -- who also wrote the screenplay for the 1993 film -- really has more in common with Shakespeare than with Neil Simon.
As with the Bard’s work, much of Six Degrees consists of loftily written soliloquies delivered directly to the audience. And though Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter and Guare uses something approaching blank verse, make no mistake: Both men reach for something more transcendent than mere entertainment.
Unlike the Bard, however, who had to grab his boisterous Elizabethan audiences immediately, Guare’s mastery is subtle. Like a good boxer, Guare takes his time, circling the audience, peppering it with jab after jab, landing the knockout blow only when he sees the perfect opening.
While at times -- most notably during the rushed first act -- Cultural Arts Theatre fails to fully employ the pugilist’s art in its current run of Six Degrees, overall this production is a heartfelt homage to the intimate beauty of small-venue theatre. Director D.J. Queenan’s obvious fondness for the material has spread to the entire cast, who display not only a well-oiled work ethic but a charming camaderie offstage as well as on.
A brief synopsis for those just emerging from under a rock or those who think Six Degrees of Separation has something to do with Kevin Bacon: Based on a true story, the play is about a young black man, Paul (Barry Kennedy), who ingratiates himself with a rich white liberal couple, Flan and Louisa “Ouisa” Kittredge (Mark Rand and Grace Diaz Tootle) by claiming he’s Sidney Poitier’s son. He’s not. Insightful observations and life-changing epiphanies ensue.
There are only so many superlatives one can write about Grace Diaz Tootle before it all sounds alike, but I have to say this is the most mature and striking performance I’ve seen in the many years I’ve enjoyed her work. A lesser actress would focus on Louisa’s more loopy, comedic aspects and miss the full measure of her tormented, sexual-but-not-sexual, selfish-but-selfless attraction to the young Paul. At every fork in the road, Diaz Tootle avoids the easy cheap shot and chooses instead to go deeper into this conflicted, frustrating but ultimately attractive character.
Restrained yet approachable, Mark Rand is perfectly cast as her husband, Flanders, a sensitive man out of his league, swimming with the sharks of the New York art world. This is a persona Rand has mastered; he’s ready to stretch out and I look forward to seeing him do so in future roles.
Charismatic and handsome, with a winning smile, Barry Kennedy is the perfect physical fit for the role of Paul. Kennedy brings a fierce concentration to this demanding part, which has not only a hell of a lot of lines but the vast majority of the full-on soliloquies.
Indeed, at times he shows too much concentration. While Kennedy knows his lines inside and out, never dropping so much as a single word or cue, my advice is: Slow down. Savor these words and let some space come between them, because it’s not often you’ll have the privilege of delivering lines of such haunting, stark beauty. Trust me -- the audience won’t mind.
While there are some striking scenes involving the strange triangle of Flan, Ouisa and Paul, the energy level really rises when the rest of the ensemble takes the stage. They’re all wonderful, but I’ll just mention that Pepi Streiff and Phillip Webber make a daffy and delightful couple as the Flanders’ society friends Kitty and Larken. Allen Landers couldn’t be better as a quick-witted but vaguely clueless South African entrepreneur. And Spencer Tootle and Hai Dang are laugh-out-loud hilarious as the Kittredge’s moody and attention-starved children.
After seeing beyond a shadow of a doubt that director D. J. Queenan knows how to do musicals, I’ve been eagerly waiting to see if he exhibits a similar mastery with straight drama. The verdict is in. This is a director with complete vision, from set to costume to casting to blocking to character.
And it’s a literal vision. It’s hard to describe, but Queenan seems to see everything, including words, as images. His sensitivity to the material -- his eye for beauty of all types -- reveals itself not only in the big picture, but the small things as well, from the whimsical (and musical!) opening sequence to the visual impact of the scenes where characters have phone conversations -- without phones.
But most relevant to the audience, Queenan has obviously inspired a great deal of respect from these actors, who respond by giving a focused, thoughtful, and most of all joyous performance of what is in the final analysis some very difficult material.
Cultural Arts Theatre performs Six Degrees of Separation Oct. 13, 14 and 15 at 8 p.m. at the Black Box at S.P.A.C.E., 9 W. Henry St. $10 for the general public and $7 for seniors and students. Call 651-6782 or 651-6783.