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 how their children, away from home, freely discuss their parents.
Paul’s downfall begins when he is discovered in Tess’s bed with a male prostitute he has taken in off the streets. Other discoveries involve two families who had been similarly defrauded and, finally, a struggling Mormon couple from Utah, Rick and Elizabeth, who are in New York to study acting. This latter scam ends in Rick’s suicide, and Paul eventually fails in his goals.
As in Greek tragedy, past events are the subject for a reevaluation of the present. The past is reenacted by means of short, abrupt, tension-creating lines of dialogue and by monologues delivered in asides directly addressed to the audience. Ouisa, in particular, as Guare’s version of the Greek chorus, reveals moral questionings that throw her self-centered existence into a tailspin.
The play’s title derives from Ouisa’s ruminations about the comforting theory that only six “degrees”—six people—separate one from everyone else on the planet. The quandary is to find those six and thus to realize the connection. She experiences the dilemma, and her theory is the basis for Guare’s simultaneously funny and searing exploration of modern mores and manners.
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....
(The entire section is 2,101 words.)