Six Degrees of Separation

by John Guare

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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 hoax. The adults discover that Dr. Fine’s son Doug, Kitty and Larkin’s son Ben, and Tess and Woody Kittedge all attended boarding school together.

All four children are summoned from college to track down Paul using their boarding school connections. The children are resentful and hostile toward their parents, but they nonetheless discover the missing link in their former classmate, Trent Conway. Tess learns that Trent picked up Paul in Boston and Paul learned about Trent’s address book. In exchange for sexual favors, Trent taught Paul to speak and behave like an upper-class young man. After three months, Paul left with the address book, along with Trent’s other possessions.

In a speech to the audience, Ouisa reflects on the idea of the play’s title, that each person on Earth is separated from any other given person by only six relationships. Ouisa is simultaneously comforted by the idea of connection and tormented by the unknowable separations.

Flan’s doorman spits at him, saying that he knows about Flan’s secret Negro son. Meanwhile, Paul meets Rick and Elizabeth, a young couple who have recently moved to New York from Utah to become actors. Paul points out the apartment of his wealthy estranged “father,” Flanders Kittredge, who abandoned his first wife and child and now refuses to see them. Rick and Elizabeth, horrified that Paul is living on the...

(This entire section contains 916 words.)

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street, invite him to share their flat while he reconciles with his father.

Paul cons Rick out of the couple’s savings and treats him to a romantic date and his first homosexual encounter before vanishing. Rick, sickened that he has squandered his future with Elizabeth, commits suicide by jumping out of his apartment window. Elizabeth contacts the police, who contact the Kittredges. The detective they spoke to earlier tells them that the police will now press charges against Paul.

While getting dressed for an auction at Sotheby’s where Flan expects to make another important art deal, Ouisa receives an unexpected phone call from Paul. He has seen the newspaper story about Rick’s death and asks Ouisa for help. Ouisa insists that he turn himself in, serve jail time, and make a fresh start. Paul asks Ouisa to intervene on his behalf with the police, referencing his race and class. He tells her that he dreams of staying with the Kittredges, of learning about art history, joining Flan’s business, and becoming part of their family. Ouisa agrees and tells Paul that she loves him. Paul gives her his location at a movie theater, and Ouisa and Flan prepare to pick him up on their way to Sotheby’s.

When the Kittredges arrive at the theater, Paul is not there. The box attendant tells them that the police have arrested a young man and taken him away, kicking and screaming. Ouisa and Flan try to find out what has happened, but they are repeatedly rebuffed, since they are not family members and do not know Paul’s real name.

Ouisa, bereft, mourns losing Paul. While Flan moves forward with his lucrative trades, Ouisa wonders how to account for her life. She thinks of Paul and of the many colors in the Kandinsky, painted on two sides.