Running on Empty

Donald barthelme once wrote, “Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, but because it wishes to be art.” In Six Degrees of Separation, John Guare says something similar about our lives: they're not chaotic and occasionally empty because we want them that way; they're chaotic and occasionally empty because that's life.

For 85 minutes of uninterrupted brilliance, Guare gives us a window into the vapid lives of Manhattan art dealers Ouisa (Rita Rene) and her husband, the well-named Flan (August Stoten). He pelts us mercilessly along the way, not only with quotations from Barthelme, but also with myriad pungent observations on modern art, literature, and the degrees of status and humanity that both separate and bind us.

Like the dual-sided Kandinsky painting that looms over the action like a patient vulture, Ouisa's life—and the lives of those around her—is soon flipped end over end by the abrupt appearance of a young con man named Paul (Scott Johnson). Director Dean Hess thoroughly understands the painting's double-edged metaphor, flawlessly layering the surface repartee of Guare's self-absorbed Manhattan bourgeoisie over the aching void yawning beneath them.

Standouts among Hess' uniformly kick-ass cast include Rene, who transforms her Ouisa from a prattling socialite to a poignant woman wrung dry by unrequited compassion, and Johnson, whose Paul moves seamlessly from smooth-talking, high-rise huckster to rough street kid and back again, all the while balancing cunning bravado with ingenuous charm. Costume designer Caleb Cleveland also deserves special notice for dressing his cast with a muted elegance that purrs money rather than shouts it, as does cast member Joseph Hutcheson, who had the balls to strut his Hustler about the stage dressed only in a pair of socks, making for a truly swingin' cameo.

Six Degrees of Separation at Cal State Fullerton's Recital Hall, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 278-3371. Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. $6-$8.

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