Six Degrees of Separation
- Current Status
- In Season
- Stockard Channing, Will Smith, Donald Sutherland, Bruce Davison, Heather Graham, Anthony Michael Hall, Mary Beth Hurt, Catherine Kellner, Ian McKellen, Anthony Rapp
- Fred Schepisi
- John Guare
Like its celebrated New York stage production, Six Degrees Of Separation hooks the audience with a high-octane setup. Based on an actual incident, John Guare’s intricate chamber play tells the story of Ouisa and Flan Kittredge (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland), a middle-aged Fifth Avenue couple—she’s a spunky socialite, he’s a private art dealer—whose lives are invaded by a bizarre stranger, a dapper young black man who arrives at their door one evening claiming to be a college chum of their children—and, not so incidentally, the son of Sidney Poitier. The stranger, Paul (Will Smith), quickly wins the Kittredges’ trust by revealing his knowledge of such intimate details as the double-sided Kandinsky painting that is their prized possession. And what a charmer he is! Whipping up a delicious dinner, he spellbinds the couple with his eloquence, his impeccable manners, his volatile and searching theories about A Catcher in the Rye and the waning of the modern imagination.
Paul is such a handsome, silver-tongued overachiever that he seems just about perfect: In spirit, he really is the son of Sidney Poitier. Will Smith, in an impressive performance, makes him easy to watch—as smooth and transparent as glass. What the play suggests, without ever quite coming out and saying it, is that the Kittredges are most impressed by the fact that this paragon of precocious brilliance is black. In a strange way, they’re flattered by his virtuosity; it shores up their old-school romantic liberalism.
There’s a reason that Six Degrees tiptoes around this issue: It attempts to flatter the audience in much the same way. Paul, of course, is not what he seems. As we quickly learn, he’s a con artist with shadowy underground origins. His shining ruse is shattered the next morning, when Ouisa finds him in bed with a crazed young man he says he picked up in Central Park. Yet Paul’s visit continues to haunt the Kittredges, especially when they learn—amusingly—that several other people in their circle have been duped by him in a similar manner. Paul may be a scam artist, but the strange thing is that he doesn’t even attempt to steal anything. He just steals into people’s lives and slinks away. What makes his image linger is that his lies are more dramatic, more powerful, more poetically true than the hollow materialistic realities of the white, jaded rich.
Set in the luxurious Manhattan environs usually reserved for upscale Woody Allen comedies, Six Degrees of Separation rockets from one posh location to the next. Fred Schepisi’s direction is so visually fleet that you may wonder how the action was ever confined to a theater. At heart, though, the play remains what it was on stage: clever, facile, hermetic—a highly accomplished crock. The way Guare turns his brilliant, symbolic black man into a walking repository of upper-class yearnings is borderline obnoxious. What really muffles the drama, however, is the nagging shallowness of the two main characters and their garish friends and family. Though engagingly played by Channing and Sutherland, the Kittredges remain charming ciphers. When Guare starts using them as vehicles for big moral lessons, the play splinters.
Guare’s theme, that everyone on earth is theoretically separated from everyone else by only six people (in Ouisa’s words, ”six degrees”), is meant to describe the relationship between Paul, the mystery-man hustler from the streets, and the Kittredges, who are closer to him than they imagined—though farther away than Ouisa hopes. Written at the end of the ’80s (it was first performed in May 1990), Six Degrees of Separation attempts to build a metaphysical bridge between the ”haves” and the ”have-nots.” But if the collapse of the previous decade’s economic fantasies has taught us anything, it’s that this dichotomy is itself a glib, false one; the vast majority of people live somewhere in between. This is a play about the supposed spiritual emptiness of bourgeois New Yorkers that was essentially written as a cathartic guilt trip for bourgeois New Yorkers—in other words, for the people who go to the theater. By the end, most moviegoers are liable to see it as much ado about nothing.
Six Degrees Of Separation Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Six Degrees Of Separation by John Guare.
John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation centers on the premise that everyone is connected to everyone else in just six degrees. Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, an upper-class New York couple,are keen to share the events of the previous evening, when they had invited Geoffrey, their wealthy friend, over for dinner. The point of the dinner was so that Flan could ask Geoffrey for two million dollars. An art dealer, Flan wanted to purchase a Cezanne but did not have the funds.
While they are enjoying drinks, the doorman knocks at the door. With him is a young African-American man who has been beaten. He tells them that he was mugged in Central Park, and introduces himself as a friend of a classmate from Harvard, who knows the Kittredges’ children. He has no money, but plans to meet with his father—Sidney Poitier, an actor—the next day.
Flan and Ouisa clean his wounds and give him a new shirt, along with an invitation to join them for dinner at a restaurant. Paul accepts their invitation to dine with them, but insists on cooking. The night is a success—they love Paul’s food and the Kittredges’ get the money from Geoffrey.They invite Paul to spend the night and give him fifty dollars to hold him over until he can meet his father.
When Ouisa goes to wake Paul the next morning, she finds him with company. Nude company. Despite his attempts to explain, Ouisa calls for Flan, who kicks both Paul and the other man out of their apartment. Ouisa and Flan later meet with Kitty and Larkin, friends of theirs who have also met Paul. He had shown up with the same story—and in the middle of the night, he woke them by crying out, “Burglar!” before chasing a naked man down the hall. Until hearing Flan and Ouisa’s story, Paul was a hero in their eyes. They try—and fail—to reach Sidney Poitier.
The four of them meet with a detective, who initially dismisses them because Paul did not actually steal anything from their apartments. However, he later reveals that another man met Paul and has a similar story. From that man, they find out that Paul is an imposter. The man pretending to be Paul the lover of Trent Conway, who attended the same boarding school as the Kittredges’ children, as well as Larkin and Kitty’s children. The son of the other man who had met “Paul” also attended that school.
Time passes, and Flan and Ouisa hear nothing more of Paul until their doorman spits at Flan. He says, “The Negro son you deny.” Flan and Ouisa learn about Paul’s meeting after he was kicked out of their apartment. Paul had met Rick and Elizabeth in the park. He told them that Flan was his father and refused to acknowledge him because of the color of his skin. Elizabeth and Rick convince Paul to reconcile with Flan. He tells them that Flan will acknowledge him if he can only get to Maine to meet his family. Though Elizabeth disagrees with Rick, he takes out all of their savings and gives it to Paul. The two go to the Rainbow Room, an expensive restaurant in the city, and then take a carriage ride in Central Park. Their evening concludes with a sexual encounter that leaves Rick feeling guilty and upset enough to take his own life. Elizabeth turns to the police, who issue a warrant for Paul.
After Flan has the newspaper print a story about Paul, Paul calls the Kittredge house, and Ouisa convinces him to turn himself in to the police. She promises to visit often while he’s in prison and to help him get back on his feet once he’s released. Paul asks her and Flan to come with him to the police station. They agree, but they also tell the detective where Paul is, and the police arrest him before Ouisa and Flan arrive. The play ends with Ouisa wondering where Paul is, and if he is still alive. She decides that their connection was meaningful after all.
A main theme of Six Degrees of Separation is race and racism. All of the characters, except for Paul, are white.Paul claims that racism did not touch him until he was sixteen years old. He claims he never noticed a difference between himself and anyone else, but by the end of the play, he admits to realizing the racist undertones in the society they all live in.
In 1990, Six Degrees of Separation opened off-Broadway. After a ten-week run, it was extended. Guare is praised for the play’s use of social issues and art to highlight the theme of the play.