School of Acting’s ‘Six Degrees’ Captivates Audiences at Sutter Theatre
(L-R) Jack Clendenen, Zaya Kolia, Renee Rogoff and Michael Houston (in chair). Photo by Bob Toy.
Paul Poitier, the young black man at the center of playwright John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, is a likable scam artist who dons different identities to get what he wants. But is he any more of a fraud than the high society folks whose world he’s desperate to join? It’s one of the intriguing questions related to identity and status that audiences who caught Academy of Art University’s School of Acting’s polished rendition of this sharp, fast-paced satire were left to ponder.
Set in the ‘80s, the play opens in the swanky Central Park apartment of art dealer Flan Kittredge (Zaya Kolia) and his wife Ouisa (Renee Rogoff). They’re entertaining Geoffrey (Jack Clendenen), a collector, in the hopes of making a deal on a painting that will help them sustain their lavish lifestyle when Paul (Michael Houston) knocks on their door. He’s bleeding from a stab wound he claims happened during a mugging. Reluctantly, the Kittredges let him inside when tells them he goes to Harvard with their children. Paul proceeds to whip up a gourmet feast for the trio, then regales them with stories about his supposed father—the actor Sidney Poitier—and an impressive analysis of Catcher in the Rye.
Ouisa, whose relationship with her own children is strained, is especially taken with Paul and invites him to spend the night. The couple realize they’ve been duped when they catch their guest in bed with a male hustler (Ryan Redmond) and send him on his way. Paul moves on to fresh victims while the Kittredges try to figure out who he really is. The results are often hilarious. Take the scene in which the Kittredges enlist their children and friends for help in solving the mystery of Paul. The kids lambast their parents for being stupid enough to fall for his charade, revving the humor to a raucous crescendo when son Woody (Cabe Thompson) goes ballistic upon learning they gave Paul his favorite pink shirt. Eventually, the Kittredges cross paths with Paul again after one of his scams ends tragically.
(L-R) Zaya Kolia, Renee Rogoff, Frances Karagio, Roman Reyes (behind group) and J.C. Ramirez. Photo by Bob Toy.
In his first major role, Houston played Paul with sunny charm spiked with just enough darkness to add emotional weight to his more serious scenes, which included several long monologues.
“Doing the monologues was a rush,” said Houston. “In the beginning, they were challenging, but then they became more natural. With each show, you begin to discover more about your character and to understand the relationships better. “
Rogoff made a vibrant Ouisa. Her witty repartee sparkled like Ouisa’s champagne lifestyle and yielded big laughs. She was equally convincing in vulnerable scenes of self-reflection, especially when grappling with her conflicted feelings for Paul. Kolia was also impressive, exuding silky-smooth confidence as the snooty, debonair Flan. A strong supporting cast fleshed out the story with scenes that offered more insight into Paul and introduced the audience to other people he’d fooled.
“I saw Six Degrees down the street at the Shelton Theater and loved everything about it,” said Kolia.” I knew I had to play Flan. It’s been amazing to work with so many talented people that just make your job that much easier.”
A striking, thoughtfully-designed set depicted the Kittredges’ posh, Upper East Side digs where most of Six Degrees takes place. One of the set’s most impressive features was a massive carved wood picture frame that stretched across the stage. The Kittredges’ prized two-sided Kandinsky painting—an apt symbol for the play’s theme of multiple identities—floated in the black space behind the frame. The dark area also provided an ideal backdrop for various characters to be spotlighted while delivering monologues. Elegant traditional furniture and a bright yellow rug decorated in a bold abstract pattern captured the essence of a well-heeled art dealer’s apartment.
The cast of Six Degrees of Separation. Photo by Bob Toy.
“This is one of those shows that’s going to be hard to leave,” said Six Degrees director Clark Houston Lewis. “The thing that was really wonderful about this play was how the actors all came together as an ensemble and supported each other no matter what the size of the role and the work. It was just the thing that you hope for in a cast.”