Imagine taking a Rothko canvas of saturated dark red horizontal panels and stretching it sideways to form a giant arc. That’s how designer Jonathan Fensom frames David Grindley’s effortful revival of “Six Degrees of Separation.” While it underlines the “art” in the play, the giant space it creates leaves the cast quite literally marooned. The play’s astute conceit survives, but seeing actors work this hard is oddly disengaging.
John Guare’s witty 1990 play (and subsequent movie) springs from the quasi-real-life notion of a young man claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier and wreaking havoc amid Manhattan’s moneyed classes. It’s a dramatically energetic premise that neatly undermines upmarket liberal consciences while providing a springboard for an unlikely heroine’s self-examination.
Chic Manhattan liberal Ouisa (Lesley Manville), married to major art-dealer Flan (Anthony Head), addresses the audience directly with the entire set-up of not just the play and their privileged life but the fact she and Flan are attempting to get a fat loan from a white South African millionaire without him noticing.
As a result, the atmosphere of the introductory scenes is rightly edgy. But from the start, the rhythms between Manville and Head feel askew. In an attempt to warm up the height and width of the stage space accentuated by the design, they punch up the tart, knowing banter between them. The result is over-bright and abrasive, and the strain shows.
Sheathed in a wrap dress, with immaculate heels and hair, Manville stalks confidently about the almost empty space but rarely seems at home in her own home. Yet for both the initial satire and Ouisa’s eventual transformation to have weight, she needs to start out far more relaxed in her own environment.
The coolest customer, appropriately enough, is Obi Abili as the imposter, Paul. Even though he arrives in a state — he has supposedly been mugged and knifed outside their apartment building — Abili has a low-voiced, honed energy that rivets attention, making the unlikely character seem entirely plausible as he weaves his way into their instant affection.
His convincing ease makes flesh of Guare’s ideas. Throughout his careful revealing of Paul’s contradictory, complex layers of behavior he remains outwardly steady. That’s even the case at his most unguarded moments, when trading his body for information from young insider-dealer Trent, played by nicely unctuous Kevin Trainor in a performance reminiscent of Robert Walker in “Strangers on a Train.”
Some of the other smaller roles are played with equal assurance. A sunny Sarah Goldberg and sweetly hapless Luke Neal are touching as the young Utah couple suckered for their life savings. And a hangdog Stephen Greif beautifully embodies end-of-tether fatherhood as another of Paul’s “victims.”
Struggle though it ultimately does to land its punches with resonance, Grindley’s Old Vic production does prove two things. First, for all its pin-sharp puncturing of pretension, “Six Degrees of Separation” is more of a linear, sharp-eyed satire than a work of depth open to myriad interpretations. Second, it illustrates that comedy loves small spaces.