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STAGE REVIEW

A stylish, superficial ‘Six Degrees’

From left: Lucas Kavner, Ariel Woodiwiss, and Ato Essandoh in “Six Degrees of Separation.’’ From left: Lucas Kavner, Ariel Woodiwiss, and Ato Essandoh in “Six Degrees of Separation.’’ (T Charles Erickson)
By Louise Kennedy
Globe Staff / July 21, 2010

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WILLIAMSTOWN — John Guare’s 1990 play, “Six Degrees of Separation,’’ popularized the idea captured in its title: that each of us is separated from everyone else in the world by only six degrees, a chain of just six people linking every one of us to one another. With 20 years separating us from the play’s debut, however, it’s hard to see how that thought ever felt fresh — or how the play ever became a hit.

That’s the impression, anyway, from Anne Kauffman’s stylish, superficial production at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Kauffman captures Guare’s contemptuously satirical view of his Upper East Side characters, but her highly polished treatment of them as self-absorbed objects of ridicule makes it impossible to create any sort of emotional connection between the central husband and wife — or between any character and the audience. And without such connections, even the satire packs no real punch.

The con man at the center of Guare’s social web is another problem. Bursting into the refined apartment of a wealthy art dealer and his wife, this young black man presents himself as the son of Sidney Poitier — though he’s craftily reticent at first about revealing that connection. Flan and Ouisa (can you tell they’re WASPs?) are smitten, especially when “Paul Poitier’’ promises he can secure them roles in his dad’s next project: a movie adaptation of “Cats.’’

So what’s the problem? (Aside from the dated jokes about “Cats,’’ I mean.) Well, Paul needs to be a blazingly charismatic figure in order for the couple — and the audience — to buy into the con. And Ato Essandoh, though he does a creditable Poitier impersonation and can roll through the kid’s smooth-talking riffs with dazzling speed, just doesn’t project the kind of irresistible attraction, sexual and otherwise, that he needs in order to cast his spell. It’s all too easy to keep a safe distance from him — a distance that only increases with Kauffman’s polished, highly presentational style.

That style works better in the ensemble scenes with the passel of college kids whom Paul has used to reach their parents: not just Flan and Ouisa but their friends Larkin and Kitty. The kids tend to burst onstage with exaggerated adolescent slouches and sighs, displaying amused disgust at their parents’ naivete and celebrity-dazzlement. They’re very funny — particularly when Flan and Ouisa’s son, Woody, launches into an increasingly hysterical rant that Dominic Spillane plays with scene-stealing glee — but, once again, the exaggerated presentation of their tics ratchets up the satire while dialing down the genuine emotional connection.

As for the adults, Margaret Colin looks the part of the high-class Ouisa, but the physical pull she seems to be called upon to feel toward Paul just doesn’t ring true. And Tim Daly makes us believe Flan’s manipulative art-dealer persona, but not his attachment to his wife. We just don’t buy for a second the idea that these people actually have a long-standing marriage, and so when that marriage seems threatened by Paul’s invasion of it, there’s nothing real at stake either for them or for us.

The Williamstown design team contributes a typically smooth effort, particularly in Antje Ellermann’s restrained, neutral palette for the elegant set. A double-sided Kandinsky painting that’s made much of as metaphor provides the only shot of color, as well as a bit of technical razzle-dazzle when it starts to revolve; the other visual interest comes from the shifting angles of the walls as the plot lurches forward.

Nothing is what it seems, see, and everything looks different from a different angle. In a world that’s already way more than six degrees away from the one into which this play was born, we need to get something more from a night in the theater than that.

Louise Kennedy can be reached at kennedy@globe.com.

SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION

Play by John Guare

Directed by: Anne Kauffman. Set, Antje Ellermann. Costumes, Jennifer Moeller. Lights, David Weiner. Sound, Fitz Patton.

At: Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, through July 25. Tickets: $50-$54. 413-597-3400, www.wtfestival.org