Six Degrees of Separation and the Wonderful Strangeness of Stockard Channing

John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, one of the most unusual and affecting stage comedies of the 90s, is enjoying what seems to be a strong revival in, of all places, London.

It’s surprising to think that such a quintessentially New York play could work anywhere outside of Manhattan, specifically the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Moreover, it seems an awkward time, in the midst of worldwide financial unpleasantness, to revive a comedy about the unrepentant rich. And to top it all off, you’ve got to wonder, what kamikaze actress would be crazy enough to take on Ouisa Kittredge, a role that Stockard Channing so famously nailed ten years ago at Lincoln Center? (Lesley Manville.)

Most of us won’t get to the Old Vic to find out how the current production addresses these riddles, but luckily, wherever you are, there’s a really good production of Six Degrees of Separation playing only steps away (assuming you own, or have rented, a DVD of the film.)

Fred Schepisi’s 1993 movie, starring Stockard, Donald Sutherland, Ian McKellen, Will Smith, and (briefly) J.J. Abrams – whose brash, mean performance transcends everything he’s done on Lost – is really as fine a film adaptation of play can get. Schepisi, working from a script by Guare, finds a highly seductive, almost addictive stylistic analog to the face-paced world of the quick-witted rich. Considering a great majority of the film is spent watching Mr. & Mrs. Kittredge lure a crowd to attend their tale of a mysterious, and mysteriously compelling, intruder, Schepisi’s choice is utterly apt. He cuts freely, and with a sense of fun; his camera glides out of windows and over skylines; and the performances he elicits – more so than any production of the play I’ve seen – are themselves involved in the very notion of seduction. These characters are constantly engaged in a performance of some kind. They are people who so deeply want to be interesting.

And that right there is Stockard Channing’s triumph. Her Ouisa Kittredge has all the trappings of a terrific performance, but more than that, it has a strangeness rare in movies. Most of today’s film actors, for reasons unknown to me, wash their characterizations clean of idiosyncrasy, preferring instead not to embellish around the fringes, but evince personalities that are both clear and direct. These are good performances. They do the utilitarian work of driving the picture forward, but rarely do they luxuriate in the funky, odd world of behavior the way Channing does in Six Degrees. Of course, there are exceptions, like Robert Downey Jr., who never misses an opportunity to surprise us, but on the whole, that quality of strangeness, a quality we love so much about character actors, seems to be absent from star performances of the moment. But I digress. The point here is that Channing creates a real person, and real people are never entirely smooth. They are corrugated.

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4 responses to “Six Degrees of Separation and the Wonderful Strangeness of Stockard Channing

  1. Doesn’t it seem the perfect time for this revival? The “unrepentant rich” are the (ostensible) cause for the current upheaval, and fine art was one of the safe havens to which they retreated when the markets went all pear-shaped. Now, with some time between us and the worst of it, is the ideal opportunity to consider how the unexpected consequences of the financial collapse coerced them, like Flan and Ouisa, to consider the needs of those perhaps momentarily less fortunate than they – and to use this divertissement to strengthen their own bargaining position.

    • That could surely make for compelling theater, but it isn’t financial collapse that coerces Flan and Ouisa (Ouisa especially) to get next to Paul. It’s a combination of vanity and compassion. It’s tough to see how their dilemmas, which are social dilemmas, are connected to the current situation.

      • Initially perhaps, but their vanity and compassion dovetail nicely with their personal (read: financial) goals both in the short and medium term. Though they may not realize it when he comes through the door, Paul facilitates if not secures the sale of the Kandinsky, and they explicitly use the story to “lure” a crowd, increasing their own visibility with the telling of it and their social prestige with its content – hardly disingenuous. Their vanity and compassion do not extend beyond the boundaries of their own personal, social, and financial goals.

      • No, no, no! At first, Ouisa can’t resist the opportunity to use Paul to make the sale. He’s only an agent to her. But then – and you see this in the closeups – Ouisa begins to fall for him. She likes Paul, feels close to him, so that when he betrays her trust, she actually feels hurt. At that point, it becomes about more than the sale. But not so for Flan. Remember, Ousia is the one who reached out to touch the Michelangelo. Ouisa actually enjoys luring the crowd because she likes brushing up against people. For Flan, it’s all about the shmooze.

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