The wife of the man who once stood a nasty cough away from the presidency has said she found something incredible in compiling family research for a memoir. Lynne Cheney told MSNBC in late 2007 that she'd learned her husband and the current president are eighth cousins, calling the discovery “such an amazing American story, that one ancestor… could be responsible down the family lines for lives that have taken such different and varied paths as Dick's and Barack Obama.” Further research reportedly shows that Obama and ex-President Bush are distantly related, as well. From this end, both instances serve as incontrovertible evidence that man is indeed descended from a bunch of frickin' apes.
I was reminded of that inherent truth upon seeing Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare's take on the idea that person A is connected to person B by a trail of six people at most, assuming that the two persons don't know each other. The theory dates to 1967 and has spawned lots of grass-roots interest, with Guare's 1990 play and the movie three years later at the heart of the phrase's popularity. The Old Globe Theatre liked the idea so much that it thought it'd have a go at things—and while I don't think the script includes enough social science to help establish a foundation, I eagerly give it up for Trip Cullman's crisp direction. Amid the madcap nature of it all, this show could dissolve into a parody of itself, but Cullman's deliberate hand keeps things readable, aboveboard and pretty damn quirky all night long.
The wayward Paul (Samuel Stricklen) is about to become an insider in an artsy-fartsy New York family, showing up at its doorstep injured and asking for help. He regales filthy-rich New York art dealers Ouisa and Flan Kittredge (Tony winner Karen Ziemba and Thomas Jay Ryan) with persuasive tales of his past, specifically those about his famous father. But pretty soon, the stories diverge and lead everybody involved to doubt his identity, along with their own. Our lowborn sense of ourselves, it seems, leads us to create a rash of false identities and games to elevate our standing in others' eyes.
Such fakery, Guare seems to say, is no match for our closeness and the dilemmas it creates—as one character says, it's “like Chinese water torture that we're so close, because you have to find the right six people to make the right connection.” Guare introduces a parade of people to that end, with Cullman holding sway over every nuance. Hard to believe we're so interconnected amid such a motley illustration of personalities, but Cullman's solid grasp on each makes us want to believe it, and Guare's deft reflections take it from there.
While the six-degrees theory has never been proven, its clinical origins have fueled a certain curiosity in pop culture (actor Kevin Bacon even launched a website, Sixdegrees.org, advancing the concept of our interrelatedness in the name of charity). Guare chooses to forgo that link to science; the characters might have been better defined if he'd somehow included it in their reflections. As such, there's a certain “gee-whiz” color at some intervals that call for quiet sobriety.
But Ziemba and Ryan are at their best, and Andromache Chalfant's set is an exemplary blend of the conceptual and the real. The social scientist in me wanted more out of this, but his actor-director counterpart liked it just fine.
This review is based on the matinée performance of Jan. 18. Six Degrees of Separation runs through Feb. 15 at The Old Globe Theatre mainstage, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park. $29-$66. 619-23-GLOBE, www.oldglobe.org.