Gorilla Theatre heats up the stage with Six Degrees of Separation

The real subject of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation is the need for human connection — the need to belong, to be respected, appreciated, loved.

When the character Paul comes into the lives of Louisa and Flanders Kittredge, they rush to his assistance, because he's a friend of their children and a son of one of the great American actors, Sidney Poitier. But by the end of the play, it's not mutual loved ones or a famous relation that moves them, it's something more elemental and harder to achieve. Paul needs the Kittredges because he wants to make sense of his life, because he can't distinguish between reality and imagination, because for one special night they afford him real dignity.

And the Kittredges need Paul — at least Louisa does — because she comes to recognize that in place of the carping and scolding of her real children, he offers the affection and care that motherhood's supposed to — but in her case doesn't — elicit. There are other themes in this vibrant, provocative play — themes of race, class and the high price of living in Manhattan — but what makes it important is its vision of human longing. For all our callousness and sophistication, we still need to be valued by some other human being. The alternative isn't just isolation — it's chaos and despair.

When the play opens, the Kittredges are hosting their rich South African friend Geoffrey, and hoping he'll pony up $2 million for a rare Cézanne. Flanders, it turns out, is an art dealer used to exchanges of vast fortunes, and though he's mostly a middle man, still he and Louisa live very well. But their subtle negotiations are interrupted by the sudden appearance of Paul, a friend of their kids at Harvard who's just been mugged in Central Park. Though they've never met him before, Paul knows all about them — even about the two-sided Kandinsky on their wall — and naturally they encourage him to change his bloodstained shirt and stay the night at their co-op.

Paul turns out to be a bright and gifted conversationalist. He loves his father the famous actor, has a brilliant angle on the loss of imagination in American life, and even has a theory as to why so many misfits turn to J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye to explain their wrongdoings. Paul offers to cook for the Kittredges and Geoffrey, and his dinner is as masterful as everything else about him. By the end of the evening, a good strong bond has been formed. Then there's a shock — and then another. And suddenly Flanders and Louisa have to re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about Paul and themselves. It's not only the Kandinsky that's painted on two sides.

The Gorilla Theatre production, brilliantly directed by Nancy Cole, is a wonder of elegant efficiency. On Keith Arsenault's beautifully minimalist black set, the talented 17-member cast brings us an Upper East Side world where not even the best of all material things can keep pain out or peace in. Three actors particularly turn in outstanding performances: Ami Sallee Corley as Louisa, Bechir Sylvain as Paul, and Chris Jackson as naïve Rick, a Utah native gamely looking for experience in the Big Apple. Corley especially is a surprise: Who would have guessed she could play a rich matron with so much panache?

Fine performances are also turned in by Drew DeCaro as Flanders, Carol Robinson as Kittredge friend Kitty, and Madeline Voges as angry daughter Tess. The play runs about 90 minutes without an intermission, but thanks to Cole and her cast, it proceeds with such fluidity that one doesn't feel the time passing. Mike Buck's costumes, especially for the younger preppies, seem to have come right out of Brooks Brothers.

So check out these Six Degrees. You'll find them satisfying and unexpected and wonderfully resonant. Certainly this is Guare's best play — and one that every American theater lover should know.

Rodentophobia. John Walch's Circumference of a Squirrel, currently playing at The [email protected], is a stunning meditation on parenthood, obsession, anti-Semitism and lost love. As sharply directed by Larry Silverberg, Gavin Hawk gives a manic, hilarious and heartbreaking performance, using everything from a vacuum cleaner with a wig to a ridiculous metal figurine to represent the pathetic characters in his tale of human extremism. If you like your comedy dark and exceedingly disturbing, you won't want to miss this. It's as modern as a Rauschenberg or a story by David Foster Wallace. And, hidden though they may be, it's got claws.

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