John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1990) is probably my favourite play of the 1990s, even though I've never had the chance to see it on stage until now. Still, it’s the kind of play that leaps off the page, an exhilarating firecracker of a piece that has Guare’s allusive, slightly crazy wit and lyricism firing off in all directions. Like the double-sided Kandinsky painting that is one of its central symbols, it’s a work that’s full of wonderful contradictions; part social satire, part detective story, part tragedy, it demands to be played at the speed of farce, yet bursts with ideas and references and philosophical speculations: about the imagination, about race and class and celebrity and art, about how we know others, and about the reductive stories we make out of the rich experiences of our lives. Gleefully spinning through genres, Guare creates a piece of work that feels totally fresh. To borrow the painterly analogies that he delights in throughout the play, the speedy Six Degrees is a sketch, but one with such dramatic breadth and depth that it turns itself into a tapestry. And the concept highlighted by its title has of course passed into daily parlance now.
Guare himself spun the play out of a real-life incident: in the 1980s, a young black man conned his way into the homes of a number of wealthy New Yorkers by passing himself off as the son of Sidney Poitier. In Guare’s play the young man becomes a character named Paul, and the couple he dupes one Ouisa and Flan Kitteridge, a self-satisfied pair experiencing an anxious moment over a lucrative art deal. Arriving at their apartment after an alleged mugging, and claiming to be a school friend of their children, the charming and intelligent Paul gives the Kitteridges a magical evening, involving a delicious meal and a discourse on the imagination (that is one of the greatest monologues in the American theatre). He also helps to secure Flan’s deal. It’s an evening that jolts the couple into presence, giving them an almost visionary sense of possibility and engagement. But, come the morning, it emerges that Paul was not who he claimed to be, and Flan and Ouisa’s attempts unravel the mystery of his deception (with the help of their hilariously awful children and similarly duped friends) is the focus of the rest of the play. For Flan, the incident becomes a mere curiosity, an anecdote to wheel out at parties. For Ouisa, though, the encounter with Paul proves transformative, alerting her to the superficiality of her relationships and the wider mysteries and meanings of human connection: “how every new person is a door, opening up into other worlds. Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people...”
Fred Schepisi made a superb movie version of the play in 1993, with Stockard Channing triumphantly reprising her stage role as Ouisa, and a deluxe supporting cast including Donald Sutherland (as Flan), a fresh-from-Bel-Air Will Smith (as Paul), and Ian McKellen. But, much as I’d loved the movie, I’d always hoped to get the chance to see Six Degrees on stage. Now that opportunity has finally arisen: David Grindley’s new production of the play for the Old Vic is the first London production since the Royal Court premiere in 1992. The preview I attended last night got a pretty warm reception, and overall I enjoyed it very much. It is, clearly, a production still in its early stages of performance: there are, despite an uncluttered set and a generally good pace, a few clunky moments of staging. The rhythm seems a bit off in places, and the comedy comes through stronger than the pathos and the grace notes. (A tricky mode, existential farce.) The production isn’t - yet - quite as fluid as it needs to be. In practice, I think I also preferred the structure of the film: the adaptation’s ingenious conceit of having Fran and Ouisa relate their experience to various groups of friends seems to me more meaningful than the play’s direct audience-address. But, these complaints aside, this is a strong production, well served by its three lead actors. Anthony Head brings a compelling note of vulnerability to Flan’s bluffness; the great Lesley Manville, though sporting an American accent that turns her a bit brassy, skilfully charts Ouisa’s journey from complacency to questioning; while, as Paul, the charismatic Obi Abili handles an extremely challenging role with aplomb, conveying the mercurial character's seductiveness, danger, neediness and brilliance. (Mention should also be made of the young actors playing the Kitteridges' kids and their friends, who get some of the biggest laughs of the night.) Ultimately, for me, this incarnation of Six Degrees felt somewhat less substantial than the film, and also broader. But all the elements are in place here and this seems like a production that will only deepen and develop as its run progresses. Catch it if you can.