BWW Reviews: Mediocre and Missing a Few Degrees, TRP's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION
Last Saturday night, I was oblivious---I was too busy ruining a steak dinner. It wasn't until Monday when I realized I completely spaced the opening weekend of Theatre in the Round Players production of SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION (it was a phone reminder gone terribly wrong). So, like any man unafraid to apologize, I tucked my tail between my legs and made the dreaded, "oops, I made a mistake" phone call to the box office. After graciously accepting my apology, I made a plan to see the show the upcoming Sunday---also known as yesterday.
John Guare's SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION is a sharp, funny and even sad depiction of the world of a con-artist in a pre-digital age when there was no way to virtually stalk a person and learn their deep, dark secrets immediately after meeting them. Guare based the script on real life experiences when a man who claimed to be the son of the award-winning Sidney Poitier swindled several friends. Yes, the story is real and you can read it here and the plot is almost exactly the same-with a few tweaks.
The plot: In New York, private class art dealers John Flanders ['Flan'] Kittredge (H. Wesley McClain) and Louisa ['Ouisa'] Kittredge (Kari Elizabeth Kjeldseth) are ready to have a business dinner with their South African friend and client Geoffrey Miller (Thom Pinault), when a wounded young black man comes to their fancy apartment telling that he had been just robbed in Central Park and asking for help. He introduces himself as Paul (Darrail Hughes), a friend of their son and daughter in Harvard and son of Sidney Poitier---the couple is immediately captivated by his charm and invites him to stay with them. During the night, they find that Paul is certainly not who he claims to be and might be nothing more than a simple con artist. When they begin to investigate the life of Paul, the discoveries force the two to re-evaluate the meaning of their own lives.
When I arrive at the theatre and find my seat, the couple next to me are discussing their growing grandchildren, two gentlemen in front of me are bantering about the weather and the average age in the theatre is somewhere around 45-55 (and that's being generous)---but the whole place is just buzzing about something or another. It's a very lively crowd for a Sunday matinee but Theatre in the Round Players have quite a loyal following, so I'm not surprised. Just before the lights fade to black, I hear it and it was that moment I should've immediately knocked on wood.
"You can't go wrong with this theatre," says a man to my right---famous last words.
SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION is a superlative choice for a smaller company. The title is highly recognizable---I blame the film version, starring Will Smith even though that's probably not true---and as long as you commit to pensive execution and making the characters believable, it's a pretty low fuss production. You don't need elaborate set pieces, extravagant costumes or anything excessive for that matter. But in order to be successful it requires a director with just the chops, and maybe Austene Van has the chops---sadly they weren't visible. The staging was wonky, the pace dragged in certain moments and a majority of the cast managed to make unthinkable choices---was I being tricked and this was actually just an invited dress rehearsal?
Van assembles a group of actors that are either highly overacting or severely underacting, making a majority of the production uncomfortable and unbalanced. Kjeldseth and McClain are so "over the top" right out of the gate, you'd think this was more of a farce than anything. Even when they seemed to settle in, they never quite got it right. The same can be said for Sue Gerver and H. William Kirsch, who play friends Kitty and Larkin, though it works a little more in their favor. Between the four of them, they all just needed to "real" it in a bit. These are real people, not obnoxious archetypes.
There were few that managed to just play the role and nail it---it's just a shame their roles were only a small fraction of the entire production. Ty Hudson (Rick) and Kayla Dvorak Feld (Elizabeth) both managed to bring out the subtlety in the charming and naïve couple from Utah. They found the rhythm, the beats and made their few minutes on stage impactful. Tamara Clark (Tess) also did a fine job making her time on stage worth remembering as the frustrated daughter of the swindled couple.
Now I could continue to rag on the long list scribbled in my notes; the guy who looked entirely too old to be a college student, the idea that flannel/plaid shirts and jeans are apparently the only thing college boys wore back then, the laughable nudity scene where the staging made absolutely no sense and why did Paul seem to be moving in slow motion the whole show? But I won't elaborate those things.
Just before leaving, I put my own thoughts in neutral for a minute---Guare's script although easy on the exterior might actually be a little more difficult than I realized. Looking back, even the film left me feeling a little underwhelmed. With its complex nuances and subtleties, it takes a stellar group to really give it the punch it needs. Unfortunately, the performance I just witnessed fell prey and didn't bring the best out of this script. So while a person who doesn't see much live theatre, could easily deem this production, "amazing" or "fantastic" (and people did), I can't say the same. I've seen an extensive amount theatre and I've personally seen Theatre in the Round Players do better.
For a company that borders that fine line of trying to produce high-quality theatre and not pay the actors, Theatre in the Round Players does a solid job a majority of the time. This just wasn't their finest hour. And this bump in the road certainly doesn't mean I would pass on the opportunity to see another production from them. Most times I actually look forward to seeing what's next for the oldest theatre in Minneapolis.
At the end of the day, it wasn't that I didn't enjoy the performance or the cinnamon cookie I always allow myself to have, I just felt it needed more polish and maybe a little more time in rehearsals to marinate with some of the actors. And like overcooked and unseasoned meat it was just tough to swallow and just a little bland for me. There were bits and pieces that were tender and delicious but the vast majority was of no use to me.
Theatre in the Round Players, 245 Cedar Avenue, Minneapolis, 612.333.3010, theatreintheround.org.
Photo Credit: Clockwise from the left: Tamara Clark, H. William Kirsch, H. Wesley McClain, Kari Elizabeth Kjeldseth and Darrail Hughes. Directed by Austene Van, costume design by Samantha Kuhn Staneart. Photo by Ron Ravensborg.