'Six Degrees of Separation': Sometimes the stranger is closer than blood
Published: February 15, 2012
Inspired in part by a real-life incident in which a young black man charmed his way into the homes of wealthy white New Yorkers by pretending to be the son of a famous actor, John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation explores the strangeness of the people we are related to, and the mysterious recognition that can spark between strangers. The play opens to a scene between Ouisa Kittredge, an Upper East Side hostess, and her husband Flan, a private purveyor of expensive art. Both are excitedly telling the audience about an amazing incident.
Geoffrey, a diamond-mine-owning friend, is visiting from South Africa, and Flan, being short on the price of a Cezanne painting, is desperate to borrow two million dollars from him. But being timid about transgressing the limits of friendship, Flan finds himself reluctant to get to the point, when suddenly the doorman delivers a wounded young man to their door. He introduces himself as Paul, a friend of their children (two at Harvard, one at Groton), and the victim of a mugging. He is also, he says, the son of actor Sidney Poitier. Paul's supposed status, his wit and erudition, and seeming fondness for his new-found friends helps clinch the painting deal. As Paul, who has been tended to lovingly by Ouisa, is about to leave with the intention, he says, to wander about till his father's arrival next morning, he is asked to instead spend the night, and is given fifty dollars as a "commission." In the morning, to the Kitteridge's horror, Paul is found in bed with a gay hustler. All pandemonium breaks out. They later find out that their friends have also received the young man into their homes, using the same ruse, and what's more, that Sidney Poitier has four children, all daughters. Though unmasked, Ouisa still finds herself caring for the so-eager-to-please young stranger, so polite and different from her own scornful children.
Presented in the beginning as farce, before the 100-minute single-act play nears its nervous conclusion the Kittredges have left off light banter to try to attempt some sort of understanding. While Flan, played with brittle humor and indignity by John O'Neil, refuses to acknowledge their intruder as anything but a con artist, Paul, played superbly by newcomer Justin Keown, remains constant throughout the turmoil, charming and optimistic, even when the suave operator finds himself falling into a trap. Among the 17 characters that crowd the stage, Ouisa, played by Anna Gangai, travels the greatest distance, from affluent snobbery to compassionate fear. But she has to; in a sense, it is her play.
She tells the audience, "I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation. Between us and everyone else on the planet. … It's a profound thought. … But to find the right six people."
Six Degrees of Separation
8pm Fri-Sat, 3pm Sun
The Sterling Houston Theatre
108 Blue Star
Through February 26