John Guare’s inspiration for writing Six Degrees of Separation hit close to home when two dear friends fell victim to the beguilement of a young con man claiming to be the son of Sidney Portier. The con man’s stint playing to the hearts and billfolds of New York City’s uppercrust was short-lived, yet he became an urban legend of sorts among the Fifth Avenue elite. His antics, sexual improprieties and heightened intelligence prompted Guare’s long-running play, as well as a film adaptation. Wasatch Theatre Company makes a valiant effort to bring the multi-charactered drama about personal “inner necessity” into our heads and hearts.
Ouisa and Flan Kittredge (Mary Lee Anderton, JC Carter) are New York socialites; he, a particularly respected art dealer. They live a high life of privilege — fine restaurants, fine wines; all things “superfluous” in life. They speak with absurd condescension on virulent subjects like cultural and social apartheid over a carafe of dry martinis. They reared three disrespectful children, now college age, each of who hold animosity toward them. Son Woody (Spencer Belnap), lips sealed during one heated argument, finally erupts, spitting immaturity like a spoiled little boy in tantrum mode, over the fact that they had given away is favorite shirt.
One evening a wounded young man named Paul (Trevor Jerome) enters Ouisa and Flan’s apartment claiming to be a friend of their children, as well as the son of famed actor Sidney Portier. Initially they are shocked and cautious of the mysterious man, but do patch up his wound and give him a change of shirt. Eventually, they succumb to his charm, to his articulate knowledge in literature, art and fine cuisine. They become so enamored with Paul, they offer him a bed for the night and travel money for the morning.
Early the next dawn, the Kittredge’s encounter a foul-mouthed, half-naked hustler (Jesse Perry) darting from Paul’s room; a late-night treat Paul had picked up using the money provided by the Kittredge’s. Disgusted, they demand Paul to leave.
In the events following that unusual night, the Kittredge’s learn Paul had also conned another high society couple, a distinguished doctor, a young and naive couple from Utah and finally, Trent Conway (David J. Bohnet), a classmate of each of their children — the one connection between all of them and Paul, their “six degrees of separation.”
Wasatch Theatre Company’s production is good, not great. Anderton and Carter as the Kittredge’s, though strong, lacked … perhaps misinterpreted the desired emotion created by Guare — emotional segues, especially in Ouisa, feel hurried and therefore unnatural. Possibly it could be a shortcoming of director Jim Martin to keep the show under 90 minutes.
On the other hand Trevor Jerome gives a solid, thoughtful performance as the misguided Paul. And most importantly, the single scenes that involved Trent and Rick (also Jesse Perry) are unmistakenly the most moving moments of the play. It’s true about “no small parts.” Bohnet’s portrayal of the smitten Trent is so believable, the fiery passion in his eyes so daunting, the scene becomes chilling. And Perry’s emotional performance as a confused Mormon man from Utah, who falls for Paul’s advances, easily awakens heart-wrenching awe.
Performed in the Studio Theatre of the Rose Wagner Center, the audience is directed to general seating that has been shifted to encompass the simple set (includes a Kadinsky-style painted stage). This arrangement allows for audience members to ocassionally stare awkwardly at the back of the actors’ heads as their lines drift inaudibly into silence.
Also, without criticizing the costume designer Linda Eyring too much, as I’m sure budget constraints made costume decisions difficult, but the Kittredge’s are extremely wealthy, country club types with an eye for the extravagant — this was not apparent, almost annoyingly so, in their mis-matched wardrobe. Also, though perhaps anal on my part, it’s difficult to belief an aging, high-falutin’ New York socialite of the early 1990s would have an ankle tattoo. Not super important to the credibility of the production, but bothered me nontheless.
Six Degrees of Separation plays Thurs.-Sat., through Jan 30, Studio Theatre, Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. Broadway. Tickets $15, 801-355-ARTS or arttix.org.