The value of imagination, the nature of trust and betrayal, the responsibilities of compassion, the uncertainty of innocence — these are all facets of John Guare's gem of a play Six Degrees of Separation, which is getting a surprisingly moving production by Epic Theatre Company (through February 24), directed by Matt Fraza.
PANIC ROOM Crossley, Lewis, and Hanrahan.
The inspiration for this fascinating 1990 drama was a series of incidents a few years earlier that had wealthy Upper East Side matrons trembling in their Manolo Blahniks. A young con man from a well-to-do family bilked a few thousand dollars out of trusting couples by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier.
Such crass motivation didn't interest Guare, though. His pretender is Paul (Ronald Lewis), who grew up impoverished and uneducated, and his reason for getting himself invited into rich people's homes is far more compelling. He wants to belong. Poitier, the late '60s harbinger of improved racial accord, was appropriate for Paul to identify with because the black film star also started life poor.
The story begins with a punch. Ouisa (Gayle Hanrahan) and Flan (Kimball Crossley) are panicking. They squawk around their living room spouting chopped-off sentences that make us think they've just been burglarized. But it becomes clear that their situation is more complicated, and much more of a violation, as they begin describing their little adventure with Paul. In the course of the re-created action, they sometimes step out of the activity to address us, establishing this as a kind of traumatic memory play.
Accompanied for a moment by the doorman of their building, Paul is as hysterical as they were a moment before. He's been mugged. They stole his thesis as well as his money. He's bleeding from a minor knife wound. He doesn't know what he's going to do.
Their understandable response is to comfort him even before he mentions his supposed father. The couple are dressed formally to attend an important function, and they have a wealthy visitor, impatient to leave, from whom Flan is desperate to get some money. But they are civilized people, so they hear the young man out.
He knows two of their children, who attend Harvard with him, Paul says. Apparently, they are intimate friends, because he is so well-informed about this couple, such as that Flan is a high-level art dealer. He even knows about the works on the walls of this room, such as that the Kandinsky reverses to reveal a second painting.
After they patch him up, he pretends to insist on leaving, even though his hotel reservation won't be available until early in the morning. Don't be silly, Ouisa insists (Flan is always one step behind in politesse) — you must stay here for the night.
How could they not fawn? They are starstruck, if only once-removed. They even swallow the outlandish prospect that they can not only meet his father but be extras in his upcoming film adaptation of Cats — a hilarious touch by the playwright, over a musical that they, like all right-thinking Manhattan theatergoers, had considered to be a cultural abomination.