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‘Six Degrees of Separation’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 22, 1993

The play "Six Degrees of Separation" packed theaters in New York and London, was plied with honors on both sides of the Atlantic and inevitably -- perhaps even unavoidably -- has been converted into a motion picture. Never mind that plays -- especially this too-precious gabfest -- are born of words, not images. The rustle in the wings still haunts playwright John Guare's own glib adaptation.

The farce, which took place on a bare stage, now opens in a luxurious Fifth Avenue apartment. It is inhabited by an art dealer and his wife with the fashionably queer names of Flan (Donald Sutherland) and Ouisa Kittredge (Stockard Channing). Adept at sipping cocktails and trading brittle ripostes, the Kittredges maintain their lavish lifestyle by selling other people's Matisses for enormous sums. Then one day, their inane lives are changed by a young black man, Paul (Will Smith), who arrives at the door with a blood-soaked shirt and an unlikely story. He claims to be a college friend of their children's who has just been mugged in Central Park and has no one else to turn to, he explains, except the Auchinclosses. (A lesser name-dropper would have mentioned the Kennedys.)

A gifted scoundrel, Paul soon wins over the Kittredges by admiring their two-sided Kandinsky. One side represents chaos, the other control; the scene determines which side is facing the room. Paul then wangles an invitation to stay overnight after he whips up a gourmet dinner for the Kittredges and their guest, a South African financier, who is so impressed with the young man that he starts planning an Afro-American film festival on the spot.

In reality, Paul is a gay con artist who can't resist elaborating on his creation by also claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier. He tops off this tale with a brilliant analysis of "The Catcher in the Rye" and then offers them all small parts in his "father's" upcoming adaptation of "Cats."

After giving him money, shelter and their trust, the Kittredges are shocked to learn that Paul has similarly fooled other members of their social circle -- even Kitty Carlisle. Like the neurotics in Woody Allen's "Manhattan Murder Mystery," the group makes a game of learning the truth about Paul.

Meanwhile, the young man becomes increasingly absorbed by the role, which leads to an inappropriately lurid turn that includes homosexual seduction, grand larceny and a lover's suicide. Then the story simply dissolves and the point of the movie with it.

Played with cheek and charisma by Smith (TV's "Fresh Prince"), Paul seems far too self-possessed to fall victim to his own creation. Indeed, he could be the son of Poitier. Channing, who originated the part of Ouisa onstage, tones down her performance on film though she still seems a theatrical creature. But then, so do many Upper East Siders. Sutherland picks up the disease, which is offset most delightfully when the couple interact with their kids, who can't believe that their parents were soooo stupid.

Otherwise, the relationships feel contrived, less a drama than an exercise in cuteness. Guare, like a precocious child, expounds upon the uses of the imagination, liberal hypocrisy and even the violent subtext of "The Catcher in the Rye," which certainly goes deeper than "Beethoven's 2nd." But it's the tail that's wagging this dog. It's too clever by half, an inside joke aimed at the New York gentry. The title is meant to suggest that everyone on the planet is linked to everyone else by a chain of acquaintances no more than six people long -- a notion plausible only to a socialite living on the Upper East Side.

"Six Degrees of Separation" is rated R for profanity, male nudity and sexuality.

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