at the Briar Street Theatre

Modern art hangs heavy over the lives of the characters in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation. Literally. Suspended over the living room of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge–the play’s protagonists and narrators, in whose Manhattan apartment most of the action is set–is a painting by Wassily Kandinsky. Encased in a fine gilded frame (echoed, in Tony Walton’s brilliant set design, in the gold-edged trimming around the apartment’s doors and along its spacious, abyss-like black walls), the painting is actually double-sided. The side visible most of the time is a cool study of cosmic geometry: spheres and stars floating in the dark eternity of space. The other side is completely abstract, a turbulent arrangement of vivid colors dominated by a threatening splash of black.

The Kittredges are art acquirers, and paintings like the Kandinsky define their lives–more than they realize. Like the double-sided canvas, this middle-aged liberal-chic couple mask jumbled, chaotic emotions behind a stylish, well-ordered facade–a set of illusions they’ve evolved to carry them through their public and private lives. This deception is not limited to them, or to others of their affluent class. It’s also embodied in a penniless young man–whose real identity no one ever learns–who lies his way into the lives of these well-meaning fools.

The young man is black. That’s important because the people Paul swindles are white–and because he uses his blackness as part of his deception. After all, you can’t pretend to be the son of Sidney Poitier if you’re not black. One night he bursts into Flan and Ouisa’s apartment, bleeding from a wound he says he got from a knife-wielding mugger. He’s Paul Poitier, he says, a classmate of Flan and Ouisa’s daughter at Harvard. And Flan and Ouisa believe him. After all, they’re suckers for art, and Paul is truly a work of art–a self-invented cultural collage who keeps adding elements he picks up from his “patrons.”

The story of Paul and the Kittredges is based on a true case, widely reported in the early 1980s, of one David Hampton. (Hampton, who served 21 months in prison, recently filed a suit seeking $100 million from Guare and others involved in the creation of Six Degrees of Separation, on the grounds that he was entitled to “the fruits of his labor.” He lost.) Like David Henry Hwang, who transformed an oddball espionage case into a critique of East-West cultural misconceptions in M. Butterfly, Guare found in the Hampton incident inspiration for a complex, far-reaching, sardonic yet compassionate study of racial, sexual, and economic barriers, and of the now-crumbling towers of illusion that American society constructed during the 1980s.

Racial issues dominate the play–more clearly now, perhaps, in the wake of the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent LA riots than was apparent when the play premiered in 1990. Paul’s adoption of the Poitier name is all too telling–indeed, it might seem ridiculously obvious if it weren’t true. The actor who washed dishes for $4 a night while living in a bus-station pay toilet before he became a top star (not to mention the perfect 1960s role model of the well-spoken Negro) is an archetype of black achievement–and so of the American failure to address racism in more than token fashion.

Guided by an address book he stole from a young white man, Paul pursues his obsession with white people (not only rich ones, though they’re the most profitable), wanting on one hand to connect with a loving surrogate family and on the other to “fuck whitey”–quite literally in some cases. (Paul’s erotic taste is pointedly oriented toward white men.) Of course, in keeping with the oh-so-civilized ambience, racial tension is hardly ever mentioned–except when Paul bitterly mentions his “father’s” marriage to a white actress, or when Ouisa urges Paul to give himself up to the police. (Paul: “If they don’t know you’re special, they kill you.” Ouisa: “I don’t think they kill you.” Paul: “Mrs. Louisa Kittredge, I am black.”)

Guare roams through other issues besides race–just as the economic insanity of the 1980s had ramifications beyond expanding the gulf between rich and poor, white and black. The sharp, scintillating dialogue touches on topics as diverse as South African revolution and the Fantasticks, Chinese food and the Sistine Chapel, Japanese art buyers and Freud, The Catcher in the Rye (Paul’s manifesto of alienation and emotional paralysis) and Cats (the ultimate symbol of the last decade’s shallow materialism). As inconsistent and random as these and other elements seem, in Guare’s analysis they prove to be strongly linked: it’s only human lives that are disconnected.

Ouisa’s confrontation with this lack of connection provides the play’s emotional crisis. Moved by the poignance of Paul’s escalating pathology, Ouisa finds her own well-adjusted existence as fraudulent as the scheme she’s been suckered by. It’s a conclusion the audience has arrived at much earlier: almost from the start of the play, as they’ve watched this bright-eyed butterfly moue and mince her way through cocktail-hour conversation with a prospective art investor. Talking about Ukrainian labor strife, Ouisa reflects: “The phrase–striking coal miners–I see all these very striking coal miners modeling the fall fashions . . .” This is not a woman to take seriously–yet she becomes one, providing the only caring response to Paul’s self-destructive career.

In this catharsis lies the challenge of Six Degrees of Separation–a challenge this Chicago-premiere production fails to meet. Producer-director Michael Leavitt’s staging falls prey to the glib wit of the self-deluded characters’ dialogue in most of the first two-thirds–this production’s like a splendid New Yorker cartoon, a crisp and clever caricature, sharply detailed and wryly funny. But lacking danger or pain, it never catalyzes the sense of loss and despair inherent in the script–in Ouisa’s climactic speculation about Paul’s future and her own empty existence.

Still, the play’s early humorous sequences are marvelously funny, and the sharp intelligence of Guare’s script (if not its emotional depth) emerges with bracing clarity. The well-chosen cast performs as a true ensemble rather than as a support staff for veteran TV actress Marlo Thomas, who fits right in and proves willing to make herself look as foolish as Ouisa should look. Costumed by designer Julie Jackson in a too-tight, too-short purple minidress that vulgarly emphasizes the wearer’s bony knees and twitching tush, in the early scenes Thomas uses girlishly gawky gestures and her well-known throaty squeak to capture the giddy superficiality of this aging debutante. In the later scenes, costumed in a beautiful black gown to suggest Ouisa’s tragic stature, she conveys the script’s ideas with warmth if not gut-level commitment. As her husband, Ned Schmidtke deftly registers the paradoxical sweetness and ruthlessness of an art dealer who really loves art even as his deliberate inflation of prices for Japanese buyers distorts the work’s worth. The large supporting cast are effective in key moments: Joe Van Slyke as a South African white liberal (“One has to stay there to educate the black workers and we’ll know we’ve been successful when they kill us”), David Darlow as a pill-popping parent, Peter Van Wagner as a doctor shocked at his own racism (learning Paul isn’t a Poitier, he immediately assumes he’s a crackhead), Robert Bundy as the reckless preppie Paul seduces for his address book, Marshall McCabe and Cynthia Dane as a pair of Utah innocents Paul hoodwinks, and Darren Stevens as a stark-naked hustler who romps around the Kittredges’ home in the play’s most farcically funny scene.

Yet the only actor who digs past the play’s ironic humor to find its painful core is Bryan Hicks as Paul. In a remarkable performance, he balances the character’s sordid criminality with his wounded vulnerability, making us feel why Paul does what he does and how much hurt it causes him as well as others. If one actor had to rise to the play’s potential heights, it’s as well that it was Hicks; after all, Paul is the key figure, motivating the rest of the action. But if all the actors had risen to the same height, Six Degrees of Separation would have been the knockout work of mind and feeling it should be, rather than the intriguing but finally less than overwhelming production it is.