Like its celebrated New York stage production, Six Degrees Of Separation hooks the audience with a high-octane setup. Based on an actual incident, John Guare’s intricate chamber play tells the story of Ouisa and Flan Kittredge (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland), a middle-aged Fifth Avenue couple—she’s a spunky socialite, he’s a private art dealer—whose lives are invaded by a bizarre stranger, a dapper young black man who arrives at their door one evening claiming to be a college chum of their children—and, not so incidentally, the son of Sidney Poitier. The stranger, Paul (Will Smith), quickly wins the Kittredges’ trust by revealing his knowledge of such intimate details as the double-sided Kandinsky painting that is their prized possession. And what a charmer he is! Whipping up a delicious dinner, he spellbinds the couple with his eloquence, his impeccable manners, his volatile and searching theories about A Catcher in the Rye and the waning of the modern imagination.
Paul is such a handsome, silver-tongued overachiever that he seems just about perfect: In spirit, he really is the son of Sidney Poitier. Will Smith, in an impressive performance, makes him easy to watch—as smooth and transparent as glass. What the play suggests, without ever quite coming out and saying it, is that the Kittredges are most impressed by the fact that this paragon of precocious brilliance is black. In a strange way, they’re flattered by his virtuosity; it shores up their old-school romantic liberalism.
There’s a reason that Six Degrees tiptoes around this issue: It attempts to flatter the audience in much the same way. Paul, of course, is not what he seems. As we quickly learn, he’s a con artist with shadowy underground origins. His shining ruse is shattered the next morning, when Ouisa finds him in bed with a crazed young man he says he picked up in Central Park. Yet Paul’s visit continues to haunt the Kittredges, especially when they learn—amusingly—that several other people in their circle have been duped by him in a similar manner. Paul may be a scam artist, but the strange thing is that he doesn’t even attempt to steal anything. He just steals into people’s lives and slinks away. What makes his image linger is that his lies are more dramatic, more powerful, more poetically true than the hollow materialistic realities of the white, jaded rich.
Set in the luxurious Manhattan environs usually reserved for upscale Woody Allen comedies, Six Degrees of Separation rockets from one posh location to the next. Fred Schepisi’s direction is so visually fleet that you may wonder how the action was ever confined to a theater. At heart, though, the play remains what it was on stage: clever, facile, hermetic—a highly accomplished crock. The way Guare turns his brilliant, symbolic black man into a walking repository of upper-class yearnings is borderline obnoxious. What really muffles the drama, however, is the nagging shallowness of the two main characters and their garish friends and family. Though engagingly played by Channing and Sutherland, the Kittredges remain charming ciphers. When Guare starts using them as vehicles for big moral lessons, the play splinters.
Guare’s theme, that everyone on earth is theoretically separated from everyone else by only six people (in Ouisa’s words, ”six degrees”), is meant to describe the relationship between Paul, the mystery-man hustler from the streets, and the Kittredges, who are closer to him than they imagined—though farther away than Ouisa hopes. Written at the end of the ’80s (it was first performed in May 1990), Six Degrees of Separation attempts to build a metaphysical bridge between the ”haves” and the ”have-nots.” But if the collapse of the previous decade’s economic fantasies has taught us anything, it’s that this dichotomy is itself a glib, false one; the vast majority of people live somewhere in between. This is a play about the supposed spiritual emptiness of bourgeois New Yorkers that was essentially written as a cathartic guilt trip for bourgeois New Yorkers—in other words, for the people who go to the theater. By the end, most moviegoers are liable to see it as much ado about nothing.