I saw Six Degrees of Separation, by John Guare at the Old Globe theater in Balboa Park. I think it’s a testament to the death of the playwright that his name does not appear on the cover of the program. The play centers around a small group (mainly one couple) of wealthy Manhattan liberal elites, all of whose kids go to Harvard or Dartmouth (or MIT, as it turns out). It is based on a true incident in which a young man “who said he was a Harvard student and the son of the actor Sidney Poitier gained entrance to their homes, dined with them, borrowed money…” The Globe’s production is good, although the pacing is ponderous at times (in a way that caters to the white elite who are probably their subscriber base). The main bones I have to pick are with the script itself.
The fundamental problem with the play itself is how it (fails to) deal with race (adequately). The character of Paul, the con man who dupes all of these self-indulgent celebrity-obsessed rich white people, remains inscrutable because Guare cannot truly fathom why he did what he did beyond Ouisa’s claim that he “wanted to be us.” The play works admirably as a skewering of liberal sentiments, from the doctor’s about face (“matinee-idol” to “crack-addict”) to Ouisa’s white guilt hand-wringing over Paul’s end. However, by making Paul’s motives unknowable to the other characters, he remains unknowable to us. Paul’s blackness is a foil against which the others play (and wreck themselves), but Guare cannot land a truly damning hit because he never makes Paul a real person. Thus the play’s message becomes a genteel “look how ridiculously puffed up these people are” as opposed to a pointed “white liberals harbor a kind of internalized racism that trivializes black people.”
The interview with the director reveals an additional source of the “dodging-the-question” aesthetic that permeated this production:
JACK: Are Ouisa and Flan the heirs of radical chic? Do you think if Paul were white — would they have fallen so hard?
TRIP: That’s a great question. I think if he were white and the son of Robert Redford, you know what I mean? I think that part of what it is — is the attraction of fame an notoriety and all that kind of stuff. Paul is such an interesting character because I think he’s someone who desperately wants everyone to love him but also is incapable…
In some cases, to “humanize” in the theater is to “avoid unpleasant truths.” And now, 20 years later, we’re still running away from them.