Review: Thought-provoking 'Six Degrees of Separation'

In the first moments of “Six Degrees of Separation,” a young black man bursts into the posh apartment of a wealthy, white New York couple. He’s a stranger, but alarm soon gives way to relief; the intruder, named Paul, seems connected to them in various ways. “He knew our names,” says Ouisa, the wife. “He knew our children’s names.”

John Guare’s 1990 play, which was made into a 1993 feature film starring Will Smith, became synonymous with random connectedness — the idea that each of us is linked by no more than six steps to every other person on Earth. But the play’s deeper message — at least in the riveting new production at San Francisco Playhouse — has more to do with the social structures and psychological barriers that keep us — black and white, rich and poor, young and old — from connecting with each other and ourselves.

Directed for maximum impact by Bill English, the brisk 90-minute production, which opens the company’s 2007-08 season, draws the battle lines in clear visual terms. Ouisa (Susi Damilano) and her high-rolling art dealer husband, Flan (Robert Parsons) seem to have it all: a stylish uptown apartment of sleek woods, curved seating and a prominently displayed, two-sided Kandinsky on the wall (set by English, softly lit by Selina Young); high-achieving children, and well-educated, tastefully dressed friends (costumes by Bree Hylkema.)

There’s a hollow feel to the glamour, though, and when Paul (Daveed Diggs) confides that he’s the son of actor Sidney Poitier, they’re enchanted. Not only does this preppy, articulate young man seem to enjoy their company (unlike their children, who treat Flan and Ouisa with comic contempt), he promises them a brush with greatness in the form of bit parts in a new film version of “Cats” soon to be directed by his famous dad.

Of course, it’s all too good to be true, and Paul — whose character is based on an actual New York con man — soon commits an act that gets him ousted from Paradise (that act involves a brief nude scene, so don’t bring the kiddies.) False as it is, though — and Flan and Ouisa never learn his true identity— Paul’s appearance in their lives leaves them all profoundly changed.

It’s Ouisa who undergoes the greatest transformation, and Damilano’s powerhouse performance registers each jolt along the way. As the play’s chief narrator and eloquent conscience, she makes Ouisa’s initial terror, her growing sense of compassion, and the devastating realization of the ways she’s failed to connect, a deeply felt experience. Diggs is a wonderfully precocious Paul, one who shows just enough of the character’s edge, and Parsons is an aptly glib Flan. A fine supporting cast excels in multiple roles as doctors, detectives, Paul’s secondary victims and Ouisa’s sullen children. In their performances, Guare’s disparate threads — hilarious farce and hallucinatory dreams, social satire and psychological drama – come together seamlessly.

IF YOU GO

Six Degrees of Separation

Presented by San Francisco Playhouse

Where: 533 Sutter St., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Nov. 17

Tickets: $38

Contact: (415) 677-9596; www.sfplayhouse.org

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

School board members Gabriela Lopez (left) and Alison Collins (right) say they have been the subject of frequent hateful, racist and sexist attacks during their time on the school board. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F Examiner)
Angered by Lowell decision, SFUSD grad targets school board members with violent imagery

Facebook page depicts two women of color on board with swastikas and x-marks on their faces

Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer, a former school board member, said it was ‘ridiculous’ that the school district did not yet have a plan to reopen. <ins>(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)</ins>
Supervisors demand SFUSD set a timeline for reopening

Pressure grows on district to resume in-person learning as The City’s COVID-19 case count goes down

“Tenet,” the new Christopher Nolan film starring John David Washington, is showing at the drive-in in Concord. (Courtesy Warner Bros.)
Drive-ins are popping up all over the Bay Area

There are pandemic-era options for movie lovers who want to watch outdoors

The San Francisco International Arts Festival will present performances this weekend outdoors at Fort Mason, including on the Parade Ground, Eucalyptus Grove and Black Point Battery. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SF International Arts Festival wins health department approval for weekend performances

Rules allow no more than 50 people at outdoor Fort Mason performances

In this handout image provided by the California Department of Corrections, convicted murderer Scott Peterson poses for a mug shot March 17, 2005 in San Quentin, California. Judge Alfred A. Delucchi sentenced Peterson to death March 16 for murdering his wife, Laci Peterson, and their unborn child. (California Department of Corrections via Getty Images/TNS)
Prosecutors to retry penalty phase of Scott Peterson trial

2003 discovery of Laci Peterson’s body led to sensational high-profile murder trial of husband

Most Read