We are all related to each other, separated by only six people--six degrees of separation. You may not think you have anything in common with a monk in Tibet, but if you could trace a path through the right six people, you'd find a direct connection. This intriguing, if dubious, hypothesis is the leitmotif of one of the best American plays of the decade. Six Degrees of Separation, now in its stunning regional premiere at the Theatre on Broadway, explores in fully contemporary tragicomic terms the ancient theme of brotherhood and responsibility. Playwright John Guare finds a new way to ask, "Am I my brother's keeper?"

Guare takes us down a long and winding road to find the answer, the twists and turns of which reveal miles of truths about American culture and middle-class pretensions. Guare and the crack cast of this production open up one of those rare vistas of understanding in which we see our recent history spread out before us.

Ouisa and Flan live a comfortable hand-to-mouth existence as art dealers. As the play opens, they are entertaining a liberal white South African millionaire, caressing $2 million out of him to buy a Cezanne (secretly placed on the market) to sell to Japanese investors. Just as they are about to leave for dinner, a young African-American man stumbles into their apartment, the apparent victim of a mugging. Young Paul claims to know their children at Harvard. He also claims to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier.

The kid lies a mile a minute, claiming that his father is casting for the film version of Cats, and promising Ouisa, Flan and their guest Geoffrey parts as extras in his dad's new film. The white folks are completely taken in by Paul's charm, by his intellectual acumen and by their own desire to appear in a movie. Ouisa and Flan insist that he stay with them, and even give him $50 to tide him over. But when Ouisa goes to wake him in the morning, he surprises her with another startling dimension to his personality.

Little by little, Ouisa and Flan learn more about Paul from the parents of their kids' friends. Outraged and hurt, the sophisticated New Yorkers are chagrined to learn just what putty they have been in the hands of a gifted con artist.

And yet, as unsympathetic as Paul appears to be, there is more to his story than meets the eye. He could be anything at all, succeed at anything he chooses to do--with a little help. Why is he wasting his talents like this? And as kindly and open as the middle-class parents seem to be, there is something petty and unsavory about them, too. Why do their children despise them? And who are they to despise Paul? Gradually, Ouisa becomes more and more conscious of how empty her life is--and Paul, despite his perpetual dishonesty, awakens her conscience.

The play itself has a deceptively complex form, starting out rather flat and slowly developing three dimensions--almost like a pop-up book. Deborah Persoff returns yet another luminous performance as Ouisa; her sensitive reading of the role offers the most carefully developed character in the production.

Paul touches Ouisa, but it's up to Ouisa to illuminate Paul's true nature--and Persoff does this with impeccable skill, turning the screw delicately, carefully, precisely, until the whole emotional construct of the play stands up solidly. As a comic actress, she masters the perfect tone of innocence and urbanity, intelligence and near sociopolitical imbecility that the play requires. And as a dramatic actress, she reaches inward to the depths of her own wellspring of maternal feeling and social consciousness. Every word feels authentic, bright and new.

Keithwayne Brock Johnson's Paul is a terrific match for Persoff's Ouisa. Poised, charming and full of grace, Johnson creates a wholly adorable rogue--and then turns that perception upside down, revealing the troubled, aching spirit within. It is Johnson's fully realized humanity that applies the sting we take away with us.

Director Steven Tangedal designed the wonderful set and sharp lighting, and he moves his characters around that set with consummate elegance. Paul Page as Flan, J.B. Trost as another parent and Renee Goldberg as Ouisa's daughter, Tess, give standout performances. There are simply no weak links.

Guare's story leaves us with a painful contemporary dilemma: the tension between rich and poor, black and white, age and youth, the privileged and the deprived. The laughter here smoothes the sharp edges of the bitter final revelations. But six degrees of separation are too much. And truth hurts.


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