Karen Ziemba and Samuel Stricklen
in Six Degrees of Separation
(© Craig Schwartz)
Karen Ziemba and Samuel Stricklen
in Six Degrees of Separation
(© Craig Schwartz)
The world has changed tremendously in the nearly two decades since John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, now being its given San Diego premiere at the Old Globe Theatre, first touched on the idea of how everyone on the planet -- and not just Kevin Bacon -- is connected to someone else by the thinnest of threads. But time hasn't blunted the topicality of Guare's literate play or its fascination with the duality of personality and character, all of which is in evidence in Trip Cullman's sterling production, acted with panache by a very talented cast led by Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba.

Guare based his play on a real occurrence that took place among wealthy Manhattanites in the early 1980s. Here, fictional art dealer Flan Kittridge (Thomas Jay Ryan) and his stylish wife Ouisa (Ziemba) are entertaining their South African mine owner friend Geoffrey (Tony Torn) -- in the hopes of getting him to invest in their latest acquisition -- when their doorman brings in Paul (Samuel Stricklen in a star-making performance), a bleeding young black man who claims he was mugged in the park. Paul also claims to be a friend of their children, who are away at Harvard, and has intimate knowledge of the Kittridges. Moreover, he also claims to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier, whom he is meeting in the morning. Unsurprisingly, these star-struck socialites let him into their kitchen and their lives, with ultimately disastrous consequences.

As the work progresses, we discover that Flan and Ouisa aren't the only ones who were taken in by the charismatic young con man and the chance to be extras in his father's supposed film version of the musical Cats. Another wealthy couple and a divorced doctor were also duped by Paul, and a meeting with the Kittridge's rebellious and very vocal offspring prove how truly gullible the parents are. Equally taken in is Rick (heartbreakingly played by Joaquin Perez-Campbell), a young wanna-be actor from Utah who is taken in by Paul's story of abandonment and seduced by his charm.

The play, however, ultimately centers on Ouisa's determination to discover the true identity of this outsider who so touched her life. The puzzle pieces start to fall into place -- even as a few remain missing -- leaving Ouisa a markedly changed person. Ziemba beautifully etches this woman of privilege who slowly comes to realize there is a very different and starkly real world outside her safe ivory tower. As she experiences real emotions and feelings, her pain and helplessness are very palpable.

Cullman's crisp direction makes the 90-minute play zip by. Andromache Chalfant's breakaway scenic design contrasts the lushness of the Central Park living quarters and its artworks with the grim reality of the city streets and its graffiti art. Emily Rebholz's chic costumes, for the matrons as well as for their trendy kids, are well executed, and Ben Stanton has lit everything just beautifully. And the play's final image of a two-sided Kadinsky painting, which cleverly reinforces Guare's thesis, is sure to linger long after the curtain drops.