The times are tough for con artists. Used to be, way back in 1990 when Six Degrees of Separation debuted, a young man could claim to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier and get away with it. Now, his ruse would be foiled within a few seconds via a Google or Bing search.
John Guare's play now exists as a period piece and there's nothing wrong with that. Its unforgiving analysis of upper crust eccentricities and one man's craven ambition can still resonate, but they require well-crafted characterizations and split-second timing. And that's where this production at Karamu House struggles to deliver.
The preciously-named Flan and Ouisa are a middle-aged couple ensconced in the Big Apple's art world, as dealer Flan flips famous artworks and collects bundles of cash from rich speculators from Japan to South Africa. One of the latter, the fey Geoffrey, is visiting when the apartment is invaded by an attractive intruder.
Stumbling into their midst is Paul, a young man who claims he has just been mugged. He found Flan and Ouisa because he says he had attended boarding school with the couple's children, and he knows their names.
Soon, Paul is charming the cashmere socks off his hosts, rustles up a delicious dinner for them, and then shocks them after he settles in for an overnight stay.
From then on, we are introduced to other characters who have encountered Paul in various situations. Complications ensue until we get a glimpse into the souls of Paul, Ouisa and their very different worlds.
Give major points to director Michael Oatman for chutzpah. He has reversed the casting, so the black Paul Poitier is played by a white man and all the wealthy New Yorkers, written as Caucasians, are played by African-Americans.
It's a potentially interesting twist that could have taken this script to new and challenging places, providing fresh perspectives on race and society. Unfortunately, the performances don't always capture the special nature of these privileged people in this time and place.
As Flan and Ouisa, Kenneth Parker and Rochelle Jones adopt a broad, bordering on farcical approach to their roles. Waving their arms and often shouting, they are sophisticated New Yorkers with the outward elegance of stock TV sitcom characters.
And yes, residents of Gotham may tend to speak rapidly. But the fast-paced speech here, by almost all the actors, often slides into incomprehension due to blurred phrases and garbled sentences.
The key role, of course, is Paul, since he drives all the action of everyone in the show. Director Oatman wisely decides to not have Dan Rand play Paul with any hint of black speech or mannerisms, which would be wrong for the urbane son of the famous actor.
Trouble is, Rand comes off like a post-pubescent Opie Taylor and never portrays the essence of a con man, which is making the people around him confident enough to believe anything he says. Paul has to be a slick and ingratiating presence, spinning tales of his made-up parentage and other exploits with a magician's sure flair.
Instead, Rand is a bit of a pale nerd who never assumes the youthful dignity of the precocious young man he pretends to be. And his central speech about the book Catcher in the Rye is rushed and poorly contoured, leaving the audience more mystified than mesmerized.
As a result, the larger themes of the show never emerge in the clarity they deserve. These revolve around the fact that each of us is so close to everyone else (only six people apart, as the title suggests), yet so distant and disconnected.
Only once, in a phone call scene between Ouisa and Paul about 70 minutes into this 90-minute show, do the actors slow down enough to actually listen to each other and respond credibly.
But by then it's too late, and Guare's play has been reduced to a collection of feints and jabs, signifying something—but not nearly enough.