Six Degrees of Separation

by Irene Backalenick

Playhouse on the Green, in the heart of downtown Bridgeport, has had a bumpy ride over its 54-year history. At times the little gem of a theater, with a darkened house, appeared close to collapse. But now, under the new direction of Producing Artistic Director Matt Schicker, the future looks promising.

Promising if one judges by its current effort, the first under Schicker’s direction. John Guare’s “Six Degrees of Separation” is on the boards, and Schicker exactly captures Guare’s style of whimsy and mystery, comedy and drama. He has put together a charming production which gives new hope to the Playhouse. And if his cast is uneven, with some performances better than others, so be it. At this early point, Schicker is not offering an Equity production, though some professionals are decidedly on hand.

The play itself tackles all-too-familiar issues that plague a cosmopolitan society—the yearning for wealth and fame, but also the need for human connection. The play’s very title (which became a watchword after its 1990 Broadway success) suggests that we are all connected (by six degrees). But how to get at that connection is the challenge. “You have to find the right six people, to make the connections,” one character summarizes.

Ouisa and Flan live an upscale life style in New York—though finances are always in jeopardy--“hand-to-mouth on a high plateau,” as one young man puts it. He deals in high-price international art, staking their future on the big sale. Into their lives wanders Paul, a young black man who claims to be the son of Sydney Poitier and a school chum of their children. In short order, Paul cons Ouisa, Flan, and their friends, who fall easy prey when they think they might be in a Poitier film.

Janet Dunson, who plays Ouisa, is the very heart of the play, holding it all together. Though initially she overacts, with too much flutter and spastic movement, she soon settles into the role and assumes command. Her performance builds over the show’s ninety minutes, culminating in her final and deeply moving telephone exchange with Paul. As Paul, the young con artist, Khalil Muhammad is most appealing, though he tends to mumble and rush his lines, a problem he shares with T. William O’Leary, who plays Flan. But John Pyron as Geoffrey, the South African entrepreneur, delivers a suave, convincing portrayal, and Elizabeth May, as Ouisa’s daughter, adds fire to the show. Others in the 14-member cast deliver with varying degrees (more than six degrees) of success.

All told, Playhouse on the Green, under its new director, is off to a hopeful start.

(This review appears in the Connecticut Post and nytheaterscene.com)

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