Six Degrees of Separation

by John Stoltenberg

Having been watching a con man on the national stage for too long now, I found myself last night watching a con man on a local theater stage from an unusually timely point of view.  To put it simply: Had I not recently been so focused on a particular professional dissembler and how he does it—how he plays people—I am not sure I would have had eyes to see the genius in Ryan Swain’s performance as Paul, the central character in Keegan Theatre’s Six Degrees of Separation.

To the white well-to-do Manhattanites who take Paul into their well-appointed homes unawares, he’s an amiable young black man who just got mugged and is friends with their kids who are away at college. But we know, way before the script tells us—because John Guare’s play has been around a while and made into a movie—that Paul is not at all who he seems.

Thus from the instant Swain steps on stage, we are privy to Paul’s scam—and we get to watch Swain play Paul playing Paul playing the white people. We see that Swain’s every nuanced inflection, every glance, every gesture is calculated—but calculated to seem uncalculated. And so we watch him portraying the character who is constantly impersonating the person the white folks will fall for, sensing and feeding their needs, helping them feel the way they want to feel, to think about themselves how they want to be thought of, to be who they can be only in that special dynamic between a performer’s virtuoso deceiving and an audience’s volitional believing.

To be sure, the well-off white folks who succumb to Paul’s ruses are very well played as well: first Ousie (Susan Marie Rhea) and her husband Flan (Ray Ficca), then Kitty (Karen Novack) and her husband Larkin (Jon Townson), then Elizabeth (Kathleen Mason) and her boyfriend Rick (Matthew Sparacino). All convey their characters’ credulity and gullibility with perfect credibility. We do not think them dummies; we just see they’re being duped, by a first-rate imposter who seems guileless as a puppydog.

But their job is to act at face value. They need see and get that which their characters see and get. As actors they need not veer from their veneer of verisimilitude.

The character of Paul, however, has layers of ulterior motives and a sixth sense for dissimulation. The script never has him whisper asides to the audience that would help us read him, or read into him, or know what’s going on within. To infer anything about this character’s inner life while he is conniving, we have only the actor’s acting to go on.

Keegan Theatre’s stimulating production of Six Degrees of Separation is worth seeing for  all the reasons my colleagues Julia Hurley and David Friscic have pointed out. The reason that knocked me out last night, however, was the fascinating performance of Ryan Swain. His every iota of onstage energy is literally beguiling.