Actress shines, co-star pales in ‘Six Degrees of Separation’

Express production is elegantly directed and designed

Seasoned Atlanta actress Mary Lynn Owen has returned to form. If you’re still scratching your head over her last outing – an uncommonly lackluster turn as the hardly hysterical wife and murder victim in Georgia Ensemble’s recent “Deathtrap” – all can be forgiven now, in light of her thoroughly glowing performance in Actor’s Express’ “Six Degrees of Separation.”

Set among the upper crust of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, John Guare’s smart and sophisticated comedy of manners involves a prominent art dealer and his pampered wife, and the young black man who ingratiates his way into their privileged lives.

The Kittredges, Flan (James Donadio) and Ouisa (Owen), eagerly welcome Paul (Jason-Jamal Ligon) into the fold, once he introduces himself as a former classmate of their college kids – and as the son of Sidney Poitier, to boot. At first, he appeals to their so-called “liberal white guilt,” but as signs of false pretenses emerge, he forces them to question it on other levels.

Donadio and Owen deliver all of their acerbic banter to the hilt, whether commenting on the injustices of apartheid in one breath or debating the dubious notion of a “Cats” movie version in the next. It’s mainly left to Owen’s Ouisa to negotiate the play’s deepest concerns, however, and she does so with delicate skill.

In an eloquent aside to the audience, she ponders the sociological theory that gives the play its title. In a heartfelt telephone conversation with Paul, or in a moment of desperation with Flan, she struggles to find meaning in what’s happened between them – as a life-changing “experience,” not just as a cocktail-party “anecdote.” In what is primarily a rollicking, wryly observed satire, Owen provides the show with a subtle texture and a necessary balance.

For his part, unfortunately, such layers are generally lacking in Ligon’s Paul. Despite one illuminating monologue about “Catcher in the Rye,” about “emotional and intellectual paralysis” and the “death of imagination,” the character comes across as dull and bland more so than cunning or charismatic.

Otherwise, artistic director Freddie Ashley’s chic Express staging is a resounding success, briskly paced and smoothly orchestrated. The elegant scenic design is by Shannon Robert, and lighting designer Joseph P. Monaghan III adds striking contrast to periodic scenes in which characters suddenly step out of the action to recount certain events or dreams.

The talented 18-member cast includes several familiar faces (most notably, Doyle Reynolds as a prospective art investor, Lane Carlock and Larry Davis as another high-society couple and Charles Green as a duped doctor) alongside a number of newcomers (most memorably, Patrick Myers, Ashley Prince and Jordan Snead as various spoiled kids and Jordan Harris as a nude gay hustler).

Owen’s work alone would be reason enough not to miss the show. That it has so much else going for it, too, is almost an embarrassment of riches.

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