D.J. Queenan, theatre head of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, has made a huge impact in his comparatively short tenure primarily by staging ambitious and well-received musicals, like the recent Sound of Music and Aida.
This weekend, however, Queenan and the city open quite a different show, John Guare’s critically-acclaimed 1990 drama Six Degrees of Separation.
Queenan says it’s actually what he likes best.
“It’s my heart’s delight,” he says. “It’s the type of theatre I most look forward to direct. I love small, intimate reach-out and-touch-it, smell it, feel it theatre.”
Queenan, who says he’s “loved this play for years,” keys on the implicit irony of the play’s title.
“It truly illustrates the similarities we all share, that we’re all not so different from each other,” he says. “That’s the real beauty of the play -- it’s really less about separation than about how unified we are as people.”
Because of the popularity of the 1993 Will Smith movie and the entrance of the parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” into general parlance, it’s the rare person who doesn’t know at least the barebones plot of Six Degrees of Separation.
But if you don’t, here goes:
Guare’s plot was inspired by the real-life story of David Hampton, a con man who successfully convinced a number of Manhattan socialites in the ‘80s that he was the son of actor Sidney Poitier. In the play, the articulate young charlatan is named Paul, and endears himself to the sentimentally willful Ouisa Kittredge (played locally by Grace Diaz Tootle).
Ouisa takes the young man under her wing, rationalizing her dotage as a noble effort to make life easier for a troubled young black man. However, Paul -- disarmingly charming to the end -- repeatedly takes advantage of her and her husband Flan, eventually teaching them not only a lesson in real-world cynicism but a lesson in the importance of self-awareness and true compassion.
A key subplot in the play is how easily these liberal-minded elites are duped, especially when Paul convinces them he’s able to get them cameo parts in a new production of Cats. By simultaneously appealing to their egos as well as their lofty sentiments, Paul makes the ruse look like child’s play.
But Six Degrees doesn’t limit itself to social satire, biting though it is. Guare’s original script -- which he himself adapted into the film’s screenplay -- is known for its spare, almost poetic beauty, and directly appeals to the finer side of human nature as well as its darker aspects.
Queenan admits that with such fine source material, there’s no need for him to reinvent the thespian wheel.
“We’re not trying to reinterpret it at all,. We’re just trying to present it as close to possible to the original, and be as faithful as possible to the play as written. The movie itself was very faithful to the play,” he says.
“The only real difference between the play and the movie is that in the play, the fourth wall is broken, and the actors speak directly to the audience,” Queenan explains. “In the movie, John Guare instead created an ensemble of people and characters speak to each other as they would the audience in the stage production.”
Set in the city’s Black Box theatre at S.P.A.C.E. on East Henry Street, Queenan’s production will use what he calls a “minimalist set,” typical of many productions of this play.
Leading the cast are Grace Diaz Tootle as Ouisa, a role played by Stockard Channing in both the original Lincoln Center run of Six Degrees as well as the film.
A relative newcomer, Savannah State University student Barry Kennedy will take on the central role of Paul.
Rounding out the principals are Mark Rand as Ouisa’s husband Flanders “Flan” Kittredge and Allen Landers as Geoffrey Miller, a client and friend of Flan’s. ƒç
Cultural Arts Theatre presents Six Degrees of Separation Oct. 6, 7, 8, 13, 14 and 15 at 8 p.m. in the Black Box at S.P.A.C.E., located at 9 West Henry St. General admission is $10; senior/student admission is $7 with ID.