Story: Wealthy art dealers Flanders and Ouisa Kittredge have invited an important contact named Geoffrey to their swank New York City apartment to hopefully make a tidy $2 million profit on a Cezanne they’re selling. While the three of them converse, a young black man knocks at the door. He tells Flan and Ouisa that he is a classmate of their children at Harvard and that he’s in town awaiting the arrival of his dad, noted actor Sidney Poitier, who will be directing the film version of Cats.
It sounds a bit far-fetched, but ‘Paul’ is an expert conversationalist who soon convinces the art dealers that they’ll have roles as extras in his dad’s movie. Right now, though, Paul is strapped for cash and smoothly persuades the Kittredges to lend him a bit until Poitier arrives.
The Kittredges are startled later when they find a young hustler in bed with Paul, who spends the night at their apartment. Their suspicions are further aroused when their good friends Kitty and Larkin tell them about the surprising visit they’ve had by a young man who turns out to be Paul.
As the young con artist falls deeper and deeper into a web of deceit, Ouisa urges him to turn himself in to the police, with the promise of helping him despite Flan’s objections. It’s a complicated mess, but Ouisa’s strained relations with her own children compel her to be sympathetic to this mysterious stranger.
Highlights: Based on a New York Times article about a real-life confidence man who swindled wealthy New Yorkers, John Guare’s 1990 play garnered Tony Award nominations as well as a Pulitzer Prize nomination for drama. It’s a fascinating, beguiling, intriguing and intricately written gem that also draws inspiration from a theory first proposed in 1929 by Hungarian author Frigyes Kanthy, that everyone in the world can be connected to anyone else by at most six relationships.
It happens to be the first play that was produced by Stray Dog Theatre 10 years ago. To celebrate a decade of work in St. Louis, Stray Dog artistic director Gary Bell is presenting a new version of Guare’s clever story that is charming, compelling and fascinating in its own right.
Other Info: Of course, sometimes memory plays tricks, as it must with Bell, who told the opening-night audience that the show is done in one hour and 10 minutes with no intermission. It’s actually closer to an hour and 45 minutes. Regardless, Bell’s meticulous direction and precise pacing keeps the production zipping along as the audience tries to figure out what exactly is transpiring on stage.
The ensemble cast delivers several expert performances, led by Greg Fenner as the sinister Paul. While Fenner never succeeds in making Paul a sympathetic character, he does craft a finely honed portrayal of an intelligent, charismatic individual who uses his own troubled background as a springboard to infiltrate the lofty environs of New York society folks.
Gerry Love and Sarajane Alverson make a delightful duo as the upper-crust Kittredges, whose knack for turning a profit doesn’t prevent them from being duped by a clever young stranger. Love depicts Flan as an opportunistic and somewhat cynical type who meets his match in Paul, while Alverson’s steely resolve as Ouisa melts away as Paul successfully finds a way to her heart.
Robert Ashton is splendid as the Kittredge’s South African pal Geoffrey, whose racial awareness in 1990 is more buffoonish than genuine. Kay Love and Christopher Brenner are amusing as the Kittredges’ wide-eyed friends Kitty and Larkin. There’s very good work as well by Stefanie Kluba and Jeffrey Salger as a pair of kids from Utah whose lives are ruined by Paul’s predatory behavior.
The large cast also includes Mitch Eagles as a dutiful detective investigating the Kittredges’ curious accusations, Michael Monsey as a physician who also is conned by the amiable Paul and Paul Edwards as a dour doorman. Zach Wachter, Shannon Walton, Joseph Corey Henke, Richard Stewart and Evan Fornichon have smaller roles as the impudent scions of Gotham wealth and social placement.
Paul refers at one point to “the death of imagination,” an allusion to his coyly criminal ways. There’s considerable imagination, though, in Bell’s set design that features a double-sided Kandinsky painting looming above the proceedings and a swank New York City apartment, matched by his upscale costumes for the rich folks and the more utilitarian togs of the others. Tyler Duenow lights everything quite effectively and Justin Been’s sound design complements the action.
Guare’s skillful drama has lost none of its punch in the ensuing 23 years. Stray Dog’s perceptive and engaging interpretation shows that the troupe has come a long way, indeed, since its own 2003 inception.
Play: Six Degrees of Separation
Company: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: June 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, 22
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb