There have been several occasions over the years in which Theater Latté Da has cracked its theatrical skin and stretched toward something new.
That sense of metamorphosis imbues Peter Rothstein’s production of “Six Degrees of Separation,” which opened Saturday at the Ritz in northeast Minneapolis.
No, John Guare’s crunchy 1990 play has not been transformed into a musical — Latté Da’s metier. Some of Rothstein’s actors play musical instruments as accents during and between scenes, creating an indispensable cinematic dimension, but music supports — rather than drives — this thoroughly theatrical endeavor. “Six Degrees” is Rothstein’s most substantial foray into a nonmusical on Latté Da’s stage.
Guare’s play jumps off from real life. In the 1980s, a con man passed himself off as Sidney Poitier’s son and worked his way into the apartments of several tony Manhattanites.
In “Six Degrees,” the character Paul (JuCoby Johnson) knows details about his marks’ children and he can talk intellectual smack about “The Catcher in the Rye,” the absence of imagination and the phoniness of self-satisfaction.
Guare, though, isn’t satisfied with a mere caper. Sally Wingert’s Ouisa Kittredge (how marvelously smug is that name?) agonizes late in the play about Paul’s fate: “He wanted to be us. He envied us. We aren’t enough to be envied.” Aha! Self-awareness invades the Kittredges’ existential stupor. Paul has forced Ouisa to muse on how all humans are just “six people apart.”
Johnson starts the evening a bit stiff — perhaps by design, because he’s trying to make a good impression on the Kittredges. He relaxes into Paul’s con scheme and by play’s end we are fixated on who this desperate, quixotic character is — phony or real?
Wingert and Mark Benninghofen, as Ouisa’s art-dealer husband Flan, share a very watchable chemistry built from years on stage together. Their characters here grow subtly apart. Ouisa looks at the collage of her life (all color but no structure) and wonders how she can hold onto the experience — that dazzling, frightening moment — when Paul invaded their lives. Flan bluntly shoves Paul out of mind and resumes his quest for the brass ring.
Patrick Bailey, as a buttoned-up South African tycoon, Gabriel Murphy as a tragic consequence of Paul’s counterfeit personality and Kendall Anne Thompson as the Kittredge daughter distinguish themselves in the rock-solid cast.
“Six Degrees” uses direct address and scatters its mojo around the stage. Rothstein is immeasurably aided by Kate Sutton-Johnson’s swanky New York loft, complete with artwork, and Barry Browning’s spot-on lighting scheme. As classy and distinct as both elements are, they feel natural in this intentionally stagey event.
Theater companies either innovate or become stale. “Six Degrees” is a milepost on Latté Da’s march toward the former.
Graydon Royce is a longtime Star Tribune theater critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.