John Guare’s play takes its name from the ‘human web’ theory that states that every person is, at most, six steps away from any other person on the planet whoever or wherever they may be, anyone from, as wealthy Manhattanite Ouisa Kittredge notes, "the President of the United States or a gondolier in Venice."
Guare’s play is very much concerned with ideas of separation and connection, ideas that carry a possibly even greater resonance now, as the methods in which we are capable of connecting with one another has changed so dramatically since 1990 when the play was written. The key event of the play simply couldn’t happen these days. Facts could be checked within seconds, iPhones consulted, names Googled. In this way the play gains more weight than it perhaps deserves as a telling portrait of life in a pre-internet age, a world on the cusp.
Inspired by actual events, Six Degrees begins with Ouisa and her art dealer husband Flan busy buttering up their wealthy South African friend, when a young black man arrives at their door, bleeding and upset – the victim of a mugging. At first they are baffled and alarmed (Flan was midway through trying to engineer a two million dollar sale of a Cezanne), but the young man, Paul, claims to know their children, to be at Harvard with them, and, what’s more, he lets slip that he is the son of a famous film star, an icon of his times: Sidney Poitier, star of In the Heat of the Night and, as Paul, says pointedly Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
And he does end up cooking them dinner, over which they discuss his thesis on Catcher in the Rye and Holden Caulfield’s appeal to alienated young men. Charmed as they are by his company, they insist he stays the night, only to be woken by unusual sounds and to discover Paul with a gay street hustler. They ask him to leave and only discover later, when telling their story to friends, the full extent of Paul’s deception.
David Grindley's production is solid and, perhaps, over polished. It’s a little too glossy which at least is fitting in a play about the veneer of money and status. The production is, if not dominated than certainly driven, by Obi Abili’s captivating performance as Paul, the heart and yet also the void of the play. He’s charismatic, but also, as becomes increasingly clear, needy and delusional. Yet he still retains a magnetic quality, an elegance of manner, even as his hold on who he is fragments.
Anthony Head and Lesley Manville do a decent enough job as the Kittredges, though only the latter really stands out as Ouisa, haunted by her encounter with Paul, begins to examine her life and her marriage. The Kittredges live in a fine Park Avenue apartment – rendered as a series of oxblood coloured Rothko-esque panels by set designer Jonathan Fensom – and have surrounded themselves with fine things, with antique ink wells and the (rather too heavily symbolic) double-sided Kandinsky, but it is the thought of more wealth, those rows of gleaming zeroes, that really makes their eyes shine. Guare is saying, non too subtly, that they are wearing masks, as much so as Paul.
The first section of the production, during which Paul charms his way into the Kittredges’ apartment, is smoothly handled, but then as events unfold and Paul’s story fractures, it seems to lose its way. The simplicity and fluidity of the early scenes is replaced with a bittier feel: shorter scenes and more characters. The Kittredges’ children are played as foot-stamping stereotypes by actors who look rather too old for the roles. But Abili and Manville keep things moving and the play gains rather than suffers from being so firmly fixed to its time.