‘Six Degrees’ of exploration

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.

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

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