(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In Six Degrees of Separation, a young black man named Paul educates himself in order to pull off a daring scam. He enlists the aid of a high-school friend and accumulates the addresses of a number of wealthy New York families. He becomes familiar with the names of family members, their possessions, and customs. He is trained by the friend, now a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), to speak the language of the upper class. Fully armed with a knowledge of upper-class tribal customs and rites, he passes himself off as a friend of the families’ offspring enrolled at Ivy League universities.

Like Don Quixote of old, he sallies forth, but without the don’s ideals. He goes so far as to stab himself before intruding at the home of Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, sophisticated and affluent dealers of art. When he appears, he is bleeding, pleads having been robbed, and invokes friendship with their children, Tess and Woody, including knowledge of a “double” Kandinsky painting that hangs on their wall. He exudes the kind of charm, knowledge, and manners expected of a son of Sidney Poitier. His success consists of acquiring the facade of a member of the social tribe to which the Kittredges belong. Furthermore, he whets the interests of his victims by posing the possibility of their appearing in a new film his “father” is in New York to cast (Guare’s reinvention of a detail in The House of Blue Leaves) and by tales of...

(The entire section is 453 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A two-sided painting by Wassily Kandinsky revolves over the stage, alternating between wild color and somber geometry. The painting provides the focus of an expensive Manhattan apartment near Central Park. The owners, Ouisa and Flan Kittredge, enter in nightclothes and speak directly to the audience, agitated over a recent traumatic incident. As they describe the previous evening, they begin to reenact it.

Flan and Ouisa are taking a wealthy South African friend, Geoffrey, out to dinner. Flan, an art dealer, hopes to persuade Geoffrey to invest two million dollars in an upcoming deal to purchase a painting by Paul Cézanne. The friends’ banter over drinks is interrupted by the sudden arrival of a handsome young black man, Paul, who is bleeding and says he has been mugged. He describes himself as a college friend of the Kittredge children, Tess and Woody, who told him their parents were kind. Flattered, Ouisa and Flan offer first-aid and enjoy their conversation with the personable, articulate young man.

Paul eventually reveals that he is the son of the movie star Sidney Poitier, who is coming to New York the next day to cast the movie version of the musical Cats (pr. 1981). Ouisa, Flan, and Geoffrey are dazzled as Paul prepares a wonderful meal in the Kittredge kitchen and describes his thesis on J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). The Kittredges insist that Paul stay with them that night. Geoffrey quietly promises that he will invest in the upcoming deal. Ouisa and Flan celebrate their success and dream about art.

Early the next morning, Ouisa goes to wake Paul and discovers him in bed with a naked hustler, who menaces Ouisa and Flan before leaving. Distraught, they throw Paul out of the apartment and reenact the play’s first scene, again articulating their distress.

A few days later, their friends Kitty and Larkin tell Ouisa and Flan a similar story of meeting the son of Sidney Poitier. All are appalled that they have been conned. A police detective shows no interest in the case, so the two couples investigate on their own. A third dupe emerges: A Dr. Fine treated Paul for a knife wound and then gave him the keys to his brownstone before discovering the...

(The entire section is 916 words.)