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Six Degrees of Separation

Margaret Colin and Ato Essandoh shine in the Williamstown Theatre Festival's near-perfect revival of John Guare's play about a con artist who infiltrates Manhattan high society. logo
Ato Essandoh and Margaret Colin
in Six Degrees of Separation
(© T Charles Erickson)
In this day of Google and IMDB, the scam perpetrated by "Paul Poitier" in John Guare's 1990 play Six Degrees of Separation, now getting a near-perfect revival under Anne Kauffman's direction at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, would be over before it began. But even if the play is a work very much of its time, it remains timeless in its frank look at the desperate measures some of us are willing to employ to achieve a sense of belonging.

Guare derived his plot from a real-life incident, in which con artist David Hampton successfully infiltrated Manhattan's haute monde by posing as the son of actor Sidney Poitier. The real Hampton was, by all accounts, a career criminal with a sociopathic streak, but in crafting his brilliant, intra-allusive script, Guare took pains to bring out the wounded side of Paul (Ato Essendoh), thus making his gambit relatable and his quest poignant.

Equally important is the way Guare connects the dots and fills in the blanks that -- like the revolving double-sided Kandinsky that holds a place of pride amid Antje Ellermann's spot-on simulacrum of the stylish Park Avenue apartment belonging to art dealer Flan Kittredge (a polished Tim Daly) and his socially adept wife Ouisa (Margaret Colin) -- consistently rivets and rewards our interest.

Colin brings an innate softness to the role of Ouisa, a woman who can callously joke with an obscenely rich client, a South African gold mine mogul (well played by John Bedford Lloyd), about securing ringside seats to the inevitable racial riots to come -- and yet find her dormant maternal instincts stirred when she realizes the ingenious lengths to which an African-American street kid has gone to "imagine" his way into a less dead-end identity.

As Paul, Essandoh exhibits an extraordinary range and commands the stage in all of Paul's mercurial moods: one minute, he's the debonair factotum at the Kittredges' impromptu dinner party for their visiting mark; later, in flashback, he's a sexually manipulative trainee -- and lightning-fast learner -- in the peculiar ways of WASP gentility; and, at length, he is no more than a needy adolescent trying desperately to reestablish a connection with Ouisa. (Or is Paul merely prolonging the con and preying on her perceived weakness?)

As the scion of another hoodwinked household, Michael Bradley Cohen gets deserved applause for delivering a hilarious tirade about the objectionable shortcomings of his father (played by Ned Eisenberg, whose curt riposte is perfectly timed). Indeed, the production suffers from only two minor missteps: Clea Alsip overplays Tess Kittridge's entitled poutiness and Benjamin Mehl's prissy enunciation as Paul's mentor at Harvard is off-putting. (Is this meant to be shorthand for gay?)

But, little matter: Paul's pain -- with its implicit indictment of our complacent society -- comes through in this superb production.

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