Six Degrees of Separation

John Guare
Old Vic
(2010)

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John Guare's play mixes intellectual puzzle with a good, old fashioned tale of a conman in yet another play following The Line and Red that has art near its centre.

Jonathan Fensom's visually stunning set says it all. A two-sided Kandinsky (an artist recently celebrated at the New York Guggenheim where a magnificent retrospective snaked its way up the gallery) revolves over a semi-circle of Rothko Red, with the drama unusually taking place in front of the proscenium.

In the same way that it is possible to find any number of meanings in abstract art, one can do the same in Six Degrees of Separation, which is based at least loosely on a true story.

On the surface, the comedy traces the consequences of the arrival of Sidney Poitier's son Paul at the New York home of wealthy art dealer Flan Kittredge and his wife Ouisa, played by Anthony Head and Lesley Manville.

The remarkably eloquent Paul, played with just the right amount of charm and a really winning smile by Obi Abili, arrives bleeding from a stab wound. Soon enough, he is cooking an impeccable dinner for the Kittredges and the South African guest whom they are hoping to relieve of $2m in exchange for a Cezanne.

The former school friend of their children is so lovable that the deal goes through. The couple then ask Paul to stay over but the next morning make a shocking discovery.

This is not a conventional sting though. Paul seems much more interested in stealing a taste of the couple's affluent, if empty, lifestyle than their artworks.

John Guare is a clever playwright, arguably too clever, as he litters his text with cultural reference points and where a Lord Archer or Dan Brown might simplify the plot and avoid characterisation, he goes the other way.

First, the Kittredges and their fellow victims are shown up for all of their shallowness by college-aged children ungrateful for the sacrifices that have honed their diction and funded their whims.

The kids are then sent off to discover the missing link. This turns out to be an enraptured tubby, gay Pygmalion who tutored Paul for three months in return for sexual bliss and clearly would do the same again, whatever the side effects.

Where the morals get more complex is after Paul rips off a poor couple, allowing us to see him in a different light, before returning to haunt Flan and Ouisa.

Within 90 rollercoaster minutes, we are then asked to decide which side to take in a battle between Ouisa, who seems to have fallen hook, line and sinker for the spiel even knowing its unreliable source, and the angrier but arguably wiser Flan.

Obi Abili is scarily convincing as the well-spoken, handsome college boy who effortlessly talks his way into the homes and beds of his victims, although some might question the closing images of the conman in extremis.

He gets great support from Lesley Manville as the hooked Ouisa, a woman desperate for a few thrills and a surrogate child more sympathetic than her own. Anthony Head an and Ian Redford, who plays their South African guest, also make the most of less fleshed-out characters.

John Guare won an Olivier for Six Degrees first time around. The award may have been made as much for the oblique vision that it offers of a United States that is fatally succumbing to capitalism as the rich comedy that is brought out so well by David Grindley and his cast almost two decades later.

Either way, theatregoers who like to be kept on their toes don't mind a few loose ends will find that Six Degrees of Separation sets some rewarding challenges.

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Reviewer: Philip Fisher