Feb '03 [Home]


Six Degrees Of Separation, An Improvised Street Revival or
Sundays Are Working Days for Bad Actors

by Leo Vanderpot

. . .

One of the effects actors try to master—the illusion of the first time—may seem easy but it probably isn't. In the early run of a play, when the actor hasn't completely locked in on his lines, the illusion that he is saying them for the first time may occur, but the effect may be difficult to predict and the emotion conveyed not quite what the playwright intended. Conversely, the first-time illusion can be difficult to summon at each performance of a long-running play.

I was confronted by a con artist recently who needed some tutoring on this topic. It was late on a Sunday afternoon in New York and the minute I laid eyes on this guy I had a strong hunch that, even with my very limited acting ability, I was his match or better. I decided to try to beat him at his own game.

A friend and I had been to the Whitney Museum that afternoon. The con artist came down the west sidewalk of Madison just after we left the museum and were about to take a stroll south toward Grand Central. When my friend entered a shop to investigate an electronic gadget she'd seen in the window, I waited outside. The rain had been light all day and now it turned to a soft mist.

He was full of himself and the pricelessness of his easy smile.

In the early going, he was better at the Six Degrees of Separation con than others who have played the same role with (or to) me in recent months. He did a first-rate double-take and his confusion at seeing me was excellent, so good that he passed the emotion on to me like a full platter of roast beef. And he was just about perfect at being embarrassed at saying hello—as everyone is supposed to be in New York, with its unwritten no touch, no talk rules. He had a good sense of timing and his timidity was very believable.

Apologetically, he said, from six feet away, "You don't remember me? My brother worked with you and he introduced me to you. Remember?"

I eagerly took the embarrassment he gave me, avoided looking him in the eye, said, "Gee, I can't…" And trailed off with what I felt a director would call for in this situation.

It was up to me to supply the name, since he had no brother I'd ever met. He wanted me on the defensive:  No memory of this man's brother…? What's the matter with me? Embarrassment on my part leads to confusion and confusion leads to guilt and guilt leads to easy restitution via the "lending" of money to an unlucky brother of a friend I once worked with. That's his script, from the play and movie of the same title.

"Well," he said, with obvious gamesmanship, "think of a black guy at work that was a friend of yours.… Ah, it's coming to you now, right?" He took a step closer.

"Sure," I said, thinking, Now here's one that's coming at you, my friend, so you better be ready for some new pages in your script. And I fed him the name of a guy I absolutely did work with a couple years ago; his parents named him after a famous ballplayer. "Willie Mays!" I cried.

I looked him in the eyes now—and saw his world fall away into a pit of nothingness for a long three seconds before he recovered—rather well as it turned out. But his audition was coming to an end.

He said, "Right," and then he was stuck for a line. I jumped in with the name of the company where I had supposedly worked with his brother and fed him some gobbledygook about how we had probably met at an open house at the holidays a few years before.

"Right," he said again, and then all too quickly launched into his phony story about how he'd bought a used car two days before and the previous owner hadn't told him the gas gauge didn't work and he, alas, had run out of gas about an hour before and when he walked way-the-hell-uptown to a gas station, he'd found he didn't have enough money to buy gas and pay the exorbitant "ransom" they wanted for a deposit on a gas can.

There was no hint of a first-time illusion during this recitation. It came rushing out much too rapidly, without the pauses and irregularities of reality—or good acting. He was losing it after a promising start, probably because he was new at it, breaking it in after some other scam had run its unproductive course.

He had a lot of work to do. He had to link the early persona to the middle of the piece and then go for the bucks. He also had to have a tighter story, since any store that sells bottled water could have provided him with a cheap container for a gallon or half-gallon of gasoline. And most gas stations will take your driver's license for security.

He was about to say, "Do you think you can help me out? I'll mail you a check as soon as I get back to the house."

But I wouldn't let him. I held the initiative with a quick, "Where's Willie living these days? Still in Jersey?" This really threw him off balance. Maybe because I asked the question while again looking straight into his eyes.

"Yuh," he said quickly, with no trace of his earlier confidence.

"Nope," I said, "my friend Willie doesn't live in New Jersey." And then I ended it with, "I'm on to you. Nice try."

At which point, desperate to score on any level, he turned to my friend who had just come back out on the sidewalk and said to her with a true-to-life snarl (he wasn't acting), "Better not trust this guy. While you were in there, he couldn't keep his eyes off the girls out here."

"My only failing," I said, and she and I laughed.

Later, an actor friend of mine told me he'd like to use the Six Degrees Con as an acting exercise to improve his improvisational skills. But fear of arrest kept that idea from becoming a reality. He's now waiting patiently for the next con artist to approach him. He's practiced a few dumb looks on me, which he's convinced are what these guys are looking for. We both wonder what twists there might be if the con is a woman.

I'm game for another go, in any case; only next time I'm going to try to borrow money off the perp—con the conner, you might call it. It could be the fastest way of getting rid of him, but I'm not sure that's what I want. More than likely, what I want is what my friend—and just about everybody wants—a tougher challenge that leads to a bigger part.

(Leo Vanderpot was in the audience at the Lincoln Center's production of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation on the night the Gulf War of 1991 began, and he retains a memory of conflict about it—anger that the management allowed the performance to go on that night, and puzzlement at his willingness to be a member of their audience. His work has previously appeared here and in Palo Alto Review, Lynx Eye, Seattle Review, Mid-American Poetry Review, Kit-Cat Review, On the Page and California Quarterly. The Fall, 2002 issue of the South Dakota Review contains his story, "Round-Trip, Off-Peak." He played a very small role last summer in The Rhinebeck Theatre Society's production of Carousel. He lives about eighty miles upriver from the city.)