John Guare's masterwork "Six Degrees of Separation" will be captivating audiences with its mysteries long after hipsters have grown bored with the parlor game it's inspired, which plays on the ubiquity of a certain actor.

John Guare’s masterwork “Six Degrees of Separation” will be captivating audiences with its mysteries

long after hipsters have grown bored with the parlor game it’s inspired, which plays on the ubiquity of a certain actor.

Guare’s play, originally produced in 1990, pierced with expert wit the pretensions of the Reagan ’80s, when the equation between the possession of expensive things and self-satisfaction seemed indisputable. But its deepest concerns are of more eternal questions, most intriguingly the power of art to liberate the imagination, forging connections between people separated by social caliber, skin color or circumstance.

Not incidentally, the play provides actresses past the starlet years with a central role of incomparable richness. Indeed, South Coast Repertory’s new production, though accomplished and well cast, illustrates just how central to the play’s spell are the talents required of the actress playing Ouisa Kittredge, the well-heeled Gothamite whose awareness of her connections to the world outside her Manhattan aerie is awakened by the arrival at her doorstep of a young black man claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier.

South Coast Rep’s Ouisa is Marnie Mosiman, and though she’s perfectly proficient (some muffed lines notwithstanding), her performance lacks a pair of crucial ingredients: charisma and depth of feeling. The profound transformation that takes place in Ouisa seems too subdued and superficial here her connection to Paul (Darryl Theirse), the Poitier pretender, doesn’t seem vital enough and the play’s power is muted.

As Paul, the young Columbus from the wrong side of the tracks who sails into the Kittredges’ lives on the power of his imagination, Theirse is superb on all levels, with the appropriate shading between smooth operator and desperately needy young man.

Richard Doyle as Ouisa’s husband, Flan, is also top-notch, nailing every joke at the expense of Flan’s surface venality while expertly pulling back from the edge of caricature.

The rest of the 16-strong cast is fine, with some nice broader comedy provided by Hope Alexander-Willis as another social lioness unnerved by Paul, and Lynsey McLeod, Michael Faulkner, Colby French and David Barnathan as the disgruntled offspring of the play’s upper-crust couples.

Director David Emmes has shaped a satisfying whole out of a play that juggles styles and tones in typical Guare fashion with sometimes hair-raising agility, though the pace is just a shade behind the lightning-quick tempo dictated by the author and provided by Jerry Zaks in the Broadway production.

A star turn not designed by the author is provided by the spectacular set of Ralph Funicello, who has cleverly made of the stage a brilliantly colored Kandinsky come to life, referring to the Kittredges’ prized painting, a two-sided canvas by the modernist that’s a key element in the play’s symbolic cosmology. It’s lit with lovely and subtle variety by Tom Ruzika.

Six Degrees of Separation

South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa; 507 seats; $41 top

Production

South Coast Repertory presents a play in one act by John Guare. Directed by David Emmes.

Creative

Set, Ralph Funicello; costumes, Ann Bruice Aling; lighting, Tom Ruzika; sound, Garth Hemphill; production manager, Michael Mora; stage manager, Scott Harrison. Opened Oct. 18; reviewed Oct. 19; runs through Nov. 17. Running time: 1 hour, 30 min.

Cast

Cast: Marnie Mosiman (Ouisa), Richard Doyle (Flan), John-David Keller (Geoffrey), Darryl Theirse (Paul), Michael Strickland (Trent, Hustler), Hope Alexander-Willis (Kitty), Don Took (Larkin), Art Koustik (Detective/Policeman/Doorman), Lynsey McLeod (Tess), Michael Faulkner (Doug), Colby French (Ben, Rick), Hal Landon Jr. (Dr. Fine), David Barnathan (Woody), Susannah Schulman (Elizabeth).
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