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'Six Degrees' Explores Identity and Connections Between Strangers at Sutter Theatre

Six Degrees of Separation, the 1990 hit play by John Guare, explores the idea that all people are more closely connected than we might imagine. Picture a long line of strangers at a concert or movie. According to the theory, if you were to walk down that line and count off no more than six people, you’d meet someone you were linked to in some way. Six Degrees also  examines identity and how we respond when someone we think is a certain type of person proves to be someone entirely different. Academy of Art University’s School of Acting (ACT) is currently performing a two-week run of Guare’s thought-provoking satire at Sutter Theatre.

“I’d seen the original version of Six Degrees in New York and was just overwhelmed by it,” said Clark Houston Lewis, the play’s director and an ACT instructor. “The play is really deep and witty. I go back and re-read it every couple of years and have always wanted to do it. Because the cast is so big—there are 17 actors— it’s not easy to replicate in a regional or small theater, but lends itself in a lot of ways to a university production. There are very specific characters, so students get to do some special work without having to be on stage for the entire play.”

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Image courtesy of the School of Acting.

The plot of Six Degrees revolves around Paul Poitier (Michael Houston), a young black man who shows up on the doorstep of wealthy New York art dealer Flan Kittredge (Zaya Kolia) and his wife Ouisa (Renee Rogoff). Seeking help for a wound sustained during an attempted mugging, Paul tells the Kittredges that he’s a friend of their children from Harvard University. He also claims to be in New York to meet his father, a Broadway musical director.  

None of this is true. The Kittredges eventually discover that Paul is a con artist and kick him out. Paul moves on, donning new identities and finding fresh victims to scam. But he crosses paths with the Kittredges again when one of his schemes ends with deadly consequences. In desperation, he contacts the couple for help.

Houston is excited to be playing the role of Paul. And to be in his first full-length play.

“Paul appealed to me because he’s very charming and quick-witted, “ said Houston. “He’s fast on his feet and knows how to play the room and play off people’s emotions. This is my first time being in a production of this scale. Clark took a chance on me, so I’m really grateful for that.”

Rogoff, a veteran of several School of Acting productions, fell hard for Six Degrees for a number of reasons, including the writing.

“Guare is such a precise playwright,” she said. “He gives you stage directions but no emotional directives, so as an actor, you literally have to create your character. It’s like each character is an island to himself that adds a new facet to a diamond. The play doesn’t shine without all those facets. They all contribute to the whole of Guare’s vision.”

Rogoff also loves the way Six Degrees tackles identity and how it affects relationships.

“The play begs the audience to answer the question, ‘What is an identity?,’” she explained. “It’s about a man who comes into people’s lives and tells stories about his life that probably aren’t true. But why does that make his identity any less real? How does a human put together an identity and how far are you willing to go to create it? And what do we do when that pact with who we thought we knew, or agreed upon, gets broken?”

Six Degrees of Separation runs from  Nov. 30 to Dec. 9 at 620 Sutter Street. Performances start at  8 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. on Sunday.  Admission is free for  Academy students and faculty. General admission tickets are available at the door for $15.