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Flan and Ouisa Kittridge verge on having it all: two children at Harvard, one at Groton; a grand Fifth Avenue apartment near Jackie O’s; a couple of Mark Rothkos and a two-sided Kandinsky on the walls; and, thanks to an unexpected intervention, they’re about to become millionaires. It’s the American Dream, Upper East Side version. Flan(ders) and (L)ouisa will be rich enough to barricade themselves not only from the outside world, but also, in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, from within. Their imaginations will never threaten them again.

Enter Paul, a gay, African-American young man, knifed and beaten. Somehow he made it through apartment security. He broke that social barrier the way Sidney Poitier became the “Jackie Robinson of films.” Poitier, who grew up poor in the Bahamas, sat on the shore, Paul tells us, and conjured up “the kind of worlds that were on the other side” and what he’d “do in them.” Paul convinces Flan and Ouisa he’s Sidney Poitier’s son. Is he, or has he found, like Poitier, ways to thrive in other worlds?

Guare based Six Degrees on an actual event. “Somebody sent me a clipping…about a kid,” named David Hampton, “whose hustle was pretending to be Sidney Poitier’s son.” The fiction granted Hampton access to homes he couldn’t enter otherwise and from which he stole abundantly. What the Kittridges don’t know: Poitier had daughters but no son.

Guare didn’t invent the concept, but like Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” he authored a popular phrase. According to Ouisa, everyone on earth is only six people away from everyone else, “six degrees of separation” between you, say, and Kevin Bacon (a game, “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” based on the concept). Ouisa’s both thrilled by such small-world possibilities and frustrated “because you have to find the right six people to make the connection.”

Paul may not be Poitier’s son, but he’s become a great actor. He can converse about art with art dealers, prepare a gourmet dish from scraps, and even convince upscale New Yorkers he can land them roles in a film version of Cats — as humans. Throughout Six Degrees, Guare slams Upper East Side materialism; his funniest shot — Cats has no human roles — shows them easily duped and toe-deep shallow. They aren’t wealthy, a character says, just “hand-to-mouth on a higher plateau.”

A Pygmalion-like friend taught Paul how to pass as upper class. It only took Paul three months to become “the most eagerly sought after young man in the East.” Although he’s a quick study/genius, Paul’s trapped too. He can only gain acceptance as someone else.

At the Old Globe, even when you know that Paul’s a fraud, Samuel Stricken plays him well enough to make you wonder if Sidney Poitier might have had an illegitimate son. Guare stuffs Paul’s dialogue with lectures — about the imagination, drama’s emotionally “paralyzed” characters, a Poitier bio, violence in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Stricken handles these lengthy patches without becoming preachy (no mean feat). His best work comes when Paul connects to the sixth degree and the real Paul peeks through the mask.

Guare said Six Degrees should move like the wind. Though his early scenes threaten to crack the sound barrier, director Trip Cullman shows a good sense of the play’s collage-like form — comedy, farce, infomercial, direct address, drama, each tumbling out of the other — and how to bring the script’s 17 characters, most of them stand-and-deliver cameos, to life, especially Flan and Ouisa’s three another-planet-alienated children.

The Kandinsky painting, which hovers over the scene throughout, has two sides: on one, Rubik’s Cube formality; the other, says Guare, “wild and vivid.” Thomas Jay Ryan’s comical Flan, who tries to keep things “abstract,” is side one: controlled, formal, with the reality-avoidance instincts of an ostrich. Karen Ziemba’s open, vulnerable Ouisa’s side two (reflected in Emily Rebholz’s color-burst costumes). As the play progresses, and Ouisa’s understanding grows, Ziemba traces a touching arc from a wide-eyed comic character to near-tragic awareness.

Andromache Chalfant’s set starts out posh — the Kittridges’ art-rich apartment, with sunken living room downstage — then separates, exposing Paul’s world of graffiti on grime-gray concrete. Large sliding doors make the set resemble a fortress, though not as impregnable as Flan would prefer.

Like the Kandinsky painting, the play’s title cuts two ways. By the end the characters aren’t just six degrees away from potential soul mates; except for Paul and Ouisa, they’re at least that far removed from their authentic selves.

Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare
Old Globe Theatre, Simon Edison Centre for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park
Directed by Trip Cullman; cast, Karen Ziemba, Thomas Jay Ryan, Tony Torn, Samuel Stricklen, Steven Marzolf, Joaquin Perez-Campbell, Keliher Walsh, Donald Sage Mackay, Vivia Font, Jordan McArthur, Kevin Hoffmann, James Eckhouse, Sloan Grenz, Andrew Dahl, Catherine Gowl; scenic design, Andromache Chalfant; costumes, Emily Rebholz; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound, Paul Peterson
Playing through February 15; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-234-5623.

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