Six Degrees Of Separation: everything old is new again

The best stories are the ones that age well. John Guare wrote Six Degrees Of Separation thirty years ago, and while the story wouldn’t work in today’s world—the lies, the deceptions, the willingness to be deceived wouldn’t hold up well in our information-rich age—the vanities, the readiness to be taken in by a well-spun lie, these are ideas that still resonate.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Ouisa and Andrew Grainger as Flan in Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Six Degrees Of Separation (photo credit: Andi Crown Photography)

Jennifer Ward-Lealand holds together Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Six Degrees Of Separation, now playing at the ASB Waterfront Theatre. Her Ouisa Kittredge, rich, connected, and yet ultimately insecure and unanchored, is a delight, an elegant bundle of carefully-composed neuroses. Opposite her is Andrew Grainger as Flan, Ouisa’s husband, full of impressive bluster as he tries not to deal with the fact that his art-dealer business is totally reliant on Bruce Phillip’s Geoffrey, a South African who can stand them a couple of million dollars but not a dinner. Into their life comes Paul (a quite outstanding Tane Williams-Accra), ostensibly a friend of Ouisa and Flan’s who’s been mugged outside their Manhattan flat and who just happens, they tease out of him, to be Sidney Poitier’s son.

He’s not, of course—it’s hardly a spoiler, since Guare based Six Degrees on the true story of David Hampton, a conman who spent 21 months in prison after blagging his way into any number of similarly connected but gullible families in the 1980s.

But Guare also found in the source material a story of people who want so much to be part of a bigger, more impressive world than the one they already inhabit—the promise of a part, even a bit part, in (and, with splendid prescience, this was part of the original play) a film adaptation of Cats is offered by Paul, and the Kittredges are so distracted by Paul’s shiny promises that they allow themselves to be taken in by all his pretence.

Tane William-Accra as Paul in Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Six Degrees Of Separation (photo credit: Andi Crown Photography)

So it’s a fabulous story, and Colin McColl’s direction zips along this production with engaging momentum and the occasional shock. On a near-empty stage—a single sofa tells us they’re in the Kittredges’ living room—Flan and Ouisa tell each other, and the audience directly, the story of the night they meet Paul, Ward-Lealand’s tartly arch delivery beautifully counterpointed by Grainger’s exasperated disbelief. They play off each other with spark and fire, quite believable as a couple who know they’ve messed up and can’t quite decide whether they should blame each other.

And if Ouisa, played with just the right amount of understated venom by Lealand-Ward, is the play’s heart, then Williams-Accra’s Paul is its soul. It’s a complex role, a rich mix of damaged, ingenuous and deeply manipulative, and Williams-Accra finds all the right notes and hits them with effortless elegance.

It wouldn’t work today, of course—a minute on Wikipedia would blow up Paul’s claim—but the story of Hampton’s deceptions and manipulations works as well today as it did in 1990, when Guare’s play was first produced. And this production is as superb a retelling of the story as you could hope for. And that’s no word of a lie.

Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Six Degrees Of Separation plays at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until August 30th. Tickets available here.

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