Most people have heard of the theory of six degrees of separation in one form or another (maybe six degrees of Kevin Bacon?), which says that any person is six introductions away from any other person on the planet. In a world of easily accessible passenger flights, Facebook, LinkedIn, Skype, and ancestry.ca, the theory seems almost believable and even probable. In any case, if someone showed up at your door claiming to know you through a friend of a friend, it’s pretty easy to verify that.
But not if it’s 1990 and you don’t have ready access to the Internet. And hey, if that stranger at your doorstep tells you he met your son at university, why wouldn’t you believe him? And, if your son’s friend happens to be Sidney Poitier’s son and you’re a New York art dealer looking for an interesting story to tell at your next gallery show, so much the better, right? Sure, until he scams you out of a few thousand dollars and goes along on his way.
Based on the true story of David Hampton, an American con artist who pulled the Sidney Poitier’s son scam in Manhattan in the 1980s, Six Degrees of Separation is the theatrical adaptation of Hampton and some of the victims of his con. As Nicolle Lemay, who plays Ouisa, the socialite wife of an art dealer, says, “The show is about a life-changing experience for this upper east-side New York couple who are pretty confident in their wealth and their dry wit and one evening a young man comes into their lives and, at least for my character, Ouisa, everything changes after that.” The show plays at Walterdale Theatre December 3 – 13.
The play tackles a number of themes, but one of the most interesting may be Ouisa’s longing for meaning and connection in her life. Nicolle says, “Ultimately she knows on some level that the pursuit of money and status and all the trappings of status are not what’s filling her soul… She’s also a support to her husband in his art dealership in the way that she is kind of the person that flits around and refills drinks and makes comments and makes prospective buyers feel good about themselves. But ultimately she’s just searching for fulfillment and looking to the next chapter of her life and what that’s going to look like. She doesn’t have a great relationship with her kids and it just seems like she’s looking at a future that is maybe a little empty… Her impetus always seems to be that need for connection and meaningful experience. She alludes to the fact that she doesn’t want to turn her encounter with Paul into an anecdote. She talks about how she and her husband are just jukeboxes spitting out anecdotes. It’s this nasty sort of surface approach to everything and every relationship.”
Of course, the story of this superficial couple and their lifestyle centred around finding the next anecdote to spout off at a gallery opening is directly in contrast with the extended story format and immediate intimacy of the theatre. Nicolle says, “It’s almost the opposite of that [superficiality] in a theatre.”
Nicolle says another theme Director Louise Large focused on with the cast was, “The concept of art being a beautiful thing but [the characters in the play] are focused on the money side of art. My brother is a still life painter – that’s how he makes his living – it’s always been interesting to me, the … balance between painting what you want and what’s going to sell. It’s interesting, thinking about value and arbitrary value. There’s a line that Flan, my character’s husband, says. He’s talking about this work by Cézanne and he says, “The Japanese don’t like anything about it except that it’s Cézanne.” It’s that idea of art as a commodity, [the characters] don’t like anything else – it’s not about the beauty or its place in art history.”
At the same time, Paul (the con man who is pretending to be Poitier’s son), only sees the superficiality of Ouisa and Flan’s success. Nicolle says, “[Paul] wants everything that they have. He wants the appearance of success and even if it’s built on a lie – it’s interesting, I think as you watch the play everyone will have a different opinion of Paul’s psyche, but I think there’s something to be said for him. He is delusional, but at the same time you can understand where that delusion has come from. It’s a house built on sand, but in his mind that’s the most beautiful place to be. He says some things that indicate how even though he’s someone who’s lived on the streets, he also has a really naive view of the world in some ways… It’s that whole thing of looking at other people and thinking that they must be happy because they have such beautiful things and they have such a comfortable life. I think he forgets the difference between wealth and happiness and that the two are not necessarily correlated.”
Six Degrees of Separation by John Guare plays at Walterdale Theatre December 3 – 13. Tickets are $12 – $18 from Tix on the Square.