Theatre / Six Degrees of Separation

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From the 1993 movie version, from left to right: Stockard Channing, Ian McKellen, Will Smith, Donald Sutherland.

Ouisa: 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 this planet. The President of the United States. A gondolier in Venice. Fill in the names. I find that (a) tremendously comforting that we're so close, and (b) like Chinese water torture that we're so close. Because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. It's not just big names. It's anyone. A native in a rain forest. A Tierra del Fuegan. An Eskimo. I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It's a profound thought.

Six Degrees of Separation is a play written by John Guare that was first produced in 1990. It's loosely Based on a True Story.

The plot follows Flan Kittridge, an art dealer who sells art to private collectors, and his wife Ouisa. They're entertaining a potential client at home in their apartment one night when they're interrupted by Paul, an African-American man who's apparently been stabbed, and who claims to be (a) a friend of their children from college, and (b) the illegitimate child of Sidney Poitier. During the course of the evening, Paul cooks for them and charms them with stories about their children, about art and literature, and about his "father's" plans to make a live-action film version of Cats. Flan and Ouisa let Paul stay the night, but the next morning, they discover Paul in bed with another man, and furious, they have him thrown out of the apartment. Soon after, they discover more of their friends and acquaintances have also been taken in by Paul.

The play won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play (as well as an Obie), and was nominated for four Tony awards, including Best Play, Best Actor (for Courtney B. Vance, who played Paul), Best Actress (for Stockard Channing, who played Ouisa), and Best Director (for Jerry Zaks, who won). It was later turned into a 1993 film directed by Fred Schepisi, with Channing reprising her role as Ouisa, Donald Sutherland as Flan, and Will Smith as Paul. While the film was never a big hit (the play ran for almost two years), the title did eventually inspire the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game.


The play and the film provide examples of:

  • Ambiguous Ending: While Ouisa says she read a story about a man who hung himself in prison, we don't know if it's Paul. Also, we don't know if this is the end of Flan and Ouisa's marriage, or if they're just having a fight.
  • Based on a True Story: Paul was based on real-life con artist David Hampton, who really did charm a number of people, from rich socialites to up-and-coming celebrities such as Melanie Griffith and Gary Sinise, into letting him stay the night and giving him small amounts of money. Guare heard about Hampton from one of his friends who had been conned, and decided to write a play about him.
  • Berserk Button: The only time Paul gets angry is when Ouisa calls him stupid.
  • Big Applesauce: Most of the play, and the movie, takes place in New York City, specifically the Upper East Side. The movie especially makes use of New York City locations, specifically The Strand bookstore, where Ouisa and the others track down Poitier's autobiography and find out he had no sons.
  • Blatant Lies: Sidney Poitier, of course, never had a son, illegitimate or otherwise. And as Elizabeth finds out later, Paul isn't Flan's son either.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Well, college-age daughter. Also, the sons of Flan and Ouisa, Kitty and Larkin, and Dr. Fine.
  • Con Man: What Paul turns out to be (as was his real-life counterpoint).
  • Driven to Suicide: Rick. Also, possibly, Paul.
  • Elephant in the Living Room: The two million dollars Flan is trying to get from Geoffrey for the Cezanne. Lampshaded by Ouisa, who explains how they were afraid Geoffrey was only going to think they wanted him there for his money, but they *liked* him; they just wanted the sale.
  • Felony Misdemeanor / Serious Business: The other children are upset about their parents being taken in by Paul and treating him like a favorite son, but Woody (Flan and Ouisa' son) is more concerned with something else:
    Flan: Finally, we hear from the peanut gallery.
    Woody: You gave him my pink shirt? You gave a complete stranger my pink shirt? That pink shirt was a Christmas present from you! I treasured that shirt. I loved that shirt! My collar has grown a full size from weight lifting. And you saw my arms had grown, you saw my neck had grown. And you bought me that shirt for my new body. I loved that shirt. The first shirt for my new body. And you gave that shirt away! I can't believe it! I hate it here! I hate this house! I hate you!
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Ouisa is having one at the end, because she's bothered by the fact she and Flan have turned Paul into an anecdote to tell people at parties (literally in the movie). Flan doesn't understand why she's upset, which leads her to possibly walk out him for good at the end.
  • How We Got Here: The play and movie open with Flan and Ouisa panicking in their apartment, and the first part of the story shows why.
  • Ironic Echo: "The Kandinsky. It's painted on two sides."
  • Mood Whiplash: Everything's played for comedy until we see the consequences of Paul's encounter with Elizabeth and Rick.
  • No Name Given: We never find out Paul's real name, and the characters don't either.
    Ouisa: We weren't family. We didn't know Paul's name.
  • Parental Abandonment: Played with: Paul says he's the son of Sidney Poitier from another relationship, but claims he gets along great with him and his other family, and he's even gone to events with him. Played straight, however, when Paul claims to Elizabeth and Rick that he's Flan's illegitimate son, and Flan won't even see him.
  • Pulling The Thread: Ouisa and Flan eventually figure out since their kids went to the same boarding school as Kitty and Larkin's kids, and Dr. Fine's son, Paul must be know someone from there. When the kids (reluctantly) investigate on their own, they discover Trent Conway.
  • Running Gag: Whenever Kitty claims the connections she has to try and find out more about Paul, Larkin sputters that he doesn't want to know.
  • Scary Black Man: Flan, Ouisa, the Larkins, and Dr. Fine each treat Paul as this after they realize they've been duped by him. Only Ouisa begins to see him as something more than that by the end.
  • Shout-Out: Paul claims his thesis is about the Misaimed Fandom towards The Catcher in the Rye.
  • Shout-Out to Shakespeare: Elizabeth is studying to be an actress, and to demonstrate her skill, she performs part of the "quality of mercy" speech. Later given an Ironic Echo when Elizabeth bitterly gives the same part of the speech again after finding out what Paul did to her and Rick.
  • Speak in Unison: Flan and Ouisa sometimes do this when they're telling Paul's story.
  • Take That!: Everyone's reaction upon finding out Paul had promised the people he conned parts in Cats:
    Tess: You went to Cats. You said it was an all-time low in a lifetime of theater-going.
    Ouisa: Film is a different medium.
    Tess: You said Aeschylus did not invent theater to have it end up a bunch of chorus kids wondering which of them will go to Kitty Kat Heaven.

The play provides examples of:

  • Acting for Two: The same actor played the policeman who escorts Paul out of the apartment, and the doorman who spits on Flan later on.
  • Audience Monologue: The play is Flan and Ouisa (and later, other characters) telling their stories to the audience.
  • Rapid-Fire Comedy: In his introduction to the play, Guare mentioned how he wanted the play to be this.

The film provides examples of:

  • Academy Award: Channing was nominated for Best Actress (though she lost to Holly Hunter for The Piano).
  • Adaptation Expansion: The story from the play (as well as the dialogue) is essentially the same (though the ending is slightly changed), but here, we see Flan and Ouisa at events they only hint at in the play (such as a wedding reception) telling the story to other people, so we can see the gradual realization of Ouisa's that Paul actually meant something to their lives.
  • But Not Too Gay: At Will Smith's insistence, we never really see Paul and Trent kiss. Smith later regretted doing this, admitting it was immature of him.
  • The Cameo: Kelly Bishop (who played Kitty in the play, and also played Ouisa when Channing briefly left the production), John Cunningham (who played Flan), and Sam Stoneburner (who played Geoffrey) have brief appearances in the film as friends of Flan and Ouisa's in different scenes. Also, Kitty Carlisle made her last film appearance as the host of the final party Flan and Ouisa attend together.
  • Camp Gay: Trent Conway.
  • Info Dump: Done in a very clever way in the movie; Paul gives a speech summing up Sidney Poitier's career up to that point. We see Paul is rehearsing this in front of Trent.
  • Meaningful Echo: Ouisa tells Paul at one point about getting to see the roof of the Sistine Chapel, and even getting to give it a high-five. At the end of the film, when she's left Flan and she's walking by a store, she remembers the act and the conversation, and give a high-five to the store awning.

Alternative Title(s): Six Degrees Of Separation

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