What is identity? How do we forge relationships? With others? With ourselves? These questions are raised, and have devastating consequences, in Actor’s Express’ production of “Six Degrees of Separation.”
The play was inspired by actual events, when a young conman pretended to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier and ingratiated himself into the lives of some of Manhattan’s rich and famous. When “Paul Poitier” arrives at the posh apartment of art dealers Flan and Ouisa Kittredge having been stabbed and mugged in Central Park, the couple take him in. He claims to know their children from college and has intimate knowledge of their lives.
The play is a rich treatise on human interaction, and the playwright – John Guare – masterfully plays with our expectations of truth, and falsehoods. I’ve grown accustomed to Actor’s Express exceeding my expectations, and this play was no exception, even on a “Director’s Rough Cut” night. For the uninitiated, a “Director’s Rough Cut” means a final dress rehearsal, which (potentially) could mean an unpolished, not-quite-there performance. That wasn’t the case on Wednesday night.
The play has been around for a couple of decades now, and could feel dated in another theatre company’s hands, but director Freddie Ashley made wise choices, and the play succeeds because of those decisions: it’s simultaneously funny and passionate and troubling. Because this play was written before social media became a daily part of our collective lexicon, it is tempting to ignore the contemporary implications in the play, but that would be a grave mistake. The play works on a completely new level, as the “manufacture” of identity is displayed again and again, by everyone (similar to our “created identities” – that identity which we choose to display to others via Facebook, Twitter, etc.). The characters’ desperate search for interaction, for true connection, is both hilarious and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
The cast deftly parries with one another, and the metaphor of fencing certainly applies here, as the games played become more dangerous, eventually becoming deadly. There were very impressive skills exhibited by all the cast members, but standouts include Jason-Jamal Ligon, who plays Paul, the con-man who cons even himself, even as he becomes the catalyst for others to discover who they are, and James Donadio, who plays Flan. Special appreciation to actor Jordan Harris, who bares much more than his “Hustler” soul, and provides spirited moments onstage, for all. Yes, the play does contain full-frontal nudity.
Lighting design by Joseph P. Monaghan III provides ethereal, seeing-the-world-as-if-through-rose-colored-glasses-ambiance. The interplay between the lighting and artwork ,which literally “morphs,” from scenic designer, Shannon Robert, is spectacular. There are some truly explosive moments in this play and this is what theatre is supposed to do: ask questions that are uncomfortable, ones that may hurt us, when we try to answer. Actor’s Express manages to provide the kind of theatre that entertains us while doing so. Brilliantly.
Six Degrees of Separation continues through Feb. 9. For more information and tickets, visit actors-express.com.