It's not every play that spawns a pop culture trope on the order of "Six Degrees of Separation." Yet there's far more to John Guare's 1990 drama than platitudes about human connectedness, as Stella Adler Lab Theatre's revival reminds us with perceptive staging and solid lead performances.
Guare breached norms and boundaries of race, class and ethics with this tightly constructed play about Paul (Charles Ohaeri), a young black homosexual who charms his way into the homes and lives of well-to-do Manhattanites by claiming to be the son of actor Sidney Poitier.
His principal targets are art dealers Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, expertly played with an outraged sense of violated entitlement by Tim and Bonnie McNeil in their fragmentary narration of events. Their patronizing attitude shows that they were just as culpable in a deception that reinforced their smug pretensions of upper class superiority.
Milton Justice's staging navigates the moral complexities with assured clarity. Though Paul's scamming has unintended tragic consequences, his motives aren't criminal in a conventional sense.
Ohaeri's layered portrayal shows the needy desperation behind Paul's poised persona — he's really pursuing the same ideals of reinvented identity and social-climbing as his victims. In fact, the Kittredges are far more rapacious and exploitative in their "respectable" business, a point not lost on Ouisa as she comes to appreciate Paul's talents.
The play's 15 supporting characters prove a mixed bag, with performances spanning a wide range of professional skill. Among the better turns are Greg Louis as the Kittredge's South African business partner and Linus Ekman as Paul's inadvertent Pygmalion.
Guare's play may have lost some shock value as its themes have become more mainstream in the intervening decades, but his elegant script holds up nicely — quality writing is as hard to come by as ever.
"Six Degrees of Separation," Main Stage at Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 13. $20. (323) 455-3111 or www.plays411.com/sixdegrees. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.