More than 25 years after it was first staged, “Six Degrees of Separation,” John Guare’s sly tale of a young con man captivating and ultimately fooling an upper East Side couple, seems almost like a period piece.
These days, anybody who’d show up, bloodied, claiming to be a college friend of their kids, and, more than that, son of actor Sidney Poitier, would be subject to a quick Google on the smartphone for verification. Back then, they talked about checking at the public library for information. Eventually, she goes down to the Strand bookstore to find an out-of-print copy of Poitier’s biography.
The play, and the eventual movie, struck a nerve about the barriers to privilege and the power of glamour (or being cast in a movie), nudged by white guilt, to make one believe something that’s not quite true.
The newly staged version at Keegan Theatre, though, one can almost see why this couple were so charmed — through the performance of standout Ryan Swain who is steady, poised and learned enough to dazzle the couple at a time when their own kids that age have only disdain for them.
As the couple, Susan Marie Rhea and Ray Ficca, come off at first as a bit exaggerated as they switch back and forth between narrating their own story and being in it. But Rhea especially pours her heart into this kid in a hopeful way as Stockard Channing, Swoosie Kurtz and Kelly Bishop did on Broadway (and Allison Janney will play in a revival next year opposite John Benjamin Hickey).
Another couple are played in an even more exaggerated manner by Karen Novack and Jon Townson, but at least they seem to work better comically because they don’t have to switch to serious tone.
Matthew Sparacino and Kathleen Mason play a struggling young couple who also fall for the charms of the con man. And there is a spectacular (and wholly unnecessary) nude scene of a hustler brings home that may rattle some.
Guare’s original play goes further than the movie did; adding stories and more locales than just the swanky Central Park East apartment with its revolving two-sided Kandinsky.
There is some brisk cultural talk about art and Salinger, but Rhea’s main speech about the interconnectedness of people reflected in the title is no longer something to muse about. Indeed, that parlor game has long since become a cliche, or too associated with Kevin Bacon.
Still, the play is fun to see again, if not only for the strange story at its core (one that is based on an actual incident), but its questioning of whether having this odd anecdote to share a dinner parties is enough. Shouldn’t they try to do more to help this young man?
Brandon McCoy’s direction of the work isn’t smooth, as there’s wild variation in tone from broad comedy to philosophy that’s sometime hard to reconcile. The set by Michael Keenan is full of stark white panels that are used for back-lit silhouettes.
Kristina Marie Martin’s costumes range from the perfect sketchy clothes for Paul to a ridiculously cliched police detective in trench coat and fedora as if he’s from the 40s. “Six Degrees” may be a little dated, but that that old.
“Six Degrees of Separation” runs through Dec. 3 at the Keegan Theatre, Washington D.C.