READY TO EMBRACE THE NEW Mad Horse opens its arms to Six Degrees of Separation.
Last weekend was momentous one for Mad Horse: The theater company launched its 25th season, and welcomed audiences into its much-anticipated new performance space at Lucid Stage. For the venue's inaugural show, Peter Brown directs Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare's 1990 drama about self-invention and interconnection.
Mad Horse presents it on its newly constructed stage just off Forest Avenue, in a structure described as a "Quonset hut." You wouldn't know it from within. A three-quarters black box with high ceilings, Lucid Stage is similar in size to Mad Horse's former home, the Portland Stage Studio Theater, but has an even more intimate vibe. Here, set designers Stacey Koloski and Dave Seddon use a light touch in evoking the plush Fifth Avenue apartment of Ouisa and Flan (Christine Louise Marshall and Jay Piscopo), where the minimalism is elegant, though the sofa sometimes gets a bit cramped.
It's here, under Ouisa and Flan's double-sided revolving Kandinsky, that a well-spoken young African-American, Paul (Bari Robinson), claiming to have been mugged, interrupts their cocktail hour, an important art deal, and, ultimately, a lifetime of privileged self-satisfaction. Before the night is through, Paul has cooked dinner for them, promised them roles as extras in a film re-make of Cats, and won them over with stories of his father, whom he says is Sidney Poitier. But the truth about Paul is even more compelling, as Ouisa and Flan find when others in their social circle start reporting similar encounters with this virtuoso con artist.
Guare's script is rich with the entitled patois of the moneyed, and the cast presents amusingly caricatured portraits of the silver-spoon set, ever-so-erudite and amused at themselves. Marshall and Piscopo have the tones and gestures down, though their back-and-forth banter might sometimes be paced a little more tautly, and their Groton-and-Harvard kids — the excellent Kat Moraros, Evan Dalzell, and Nathan Speckman — are particularly hyperbolic in their surly condemnations of their parents. Particularly fine work also comes from Joseph Bearor, in possibly the show's most subtle performance as the kids' schoolmate Trent, whose desperate arousal for Paul has set the story in motion.
As the man who wreaks havoc through this seemingly insular world, Robinson (excellent, and here from New York as a Mad Horse guest artist) succeeds in conveying both Paul's charisma, an almost startling natural force, and how practiced he is in directing it. By the end of the play, as the pathologies driving his gifts come into focus, Paul's fragility and desperation are unnerving to behold. To watch him pronounce his desperate delusions as he talks on the phone with Ouisa, upstage and above her behind a scrim, is to watch a balancing of psychological liberation and horror.
This is not lost on Ouisa, whose famous realization about the closeness and interconnection of the world is balanced against a new sense of her own precariously constructed identity. Marshall does a particularly fine job intimating Ouisa's self-awareness and how it evolves: In early scenes, her banter drips with ironic acknowledgment of her coterie's "portentousness" — we see it in the deliciously quick, tart turn of her smile — but by the end, Ouisa emotionally confronts herself without the cushion of irony. In more ways than one, she finds, she is closer to Paul than she could have imagined.
Megan Grumbling can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION | by John Guare | Directed by Peter Brown | Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company | at Lucid Stage, Portland | through October 24 | 207.730.2389