Are we all linked together by only six other people? Is con artist Paul actually only six degrees of separation away from Sidney Poitier and another six away from the couple he is deceiving?
That is the premise of John Guare’s 1990 play, based on a true story, which tells of a young black con man who deceives wealthy white Manhattanites into thinking he is the Harvard graduate son of filmmaker Poitier.
A green sofa, red Rothko-style walls and a mock Kandinsky hanging in the lounge are all designer Jonathan Fensom uses to transform the Old Vic stage into the apartment of Yuppie art dealers Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, whose pretentious world – their names are actually John and Louisa – is bound together by falsities and wrapped up in money.
Blinded as they are by wealth and connections, it is no wonder that they are easily swayed by this charming pseudo-intellectual young man with his movie star links who comes to their apartment one evening, claiming to be a Harvard classmate of their children and asking for their help after having just been mugged in Central Park. Proving himself eloquent, erudite and talented in the kitchen, Paul wins over the Kittredges and their white South African businessman friend who they are hoping will invest £2million in a Cezanne they want to buy.
It is not until a revealing encounter soils Paul’s wholesome image that Flan and Ouisa swap stories with another couple, read a biography of Poitier which says he only has daughters and realise that Paul’s invitation to them to appear in Poitier’s planned film version of Cats – was that not a clue? – was all a con.
The real life fraudster upon whom this story is based tricked his victims out of a lot of money. In Guare’s play, he doesn’t take anything bar a $50 bill here and there, which doesn’t really seem worth the effort. His motive, Guare implies, is that Paul wants the friendship, family and respect that the Kittredges and his other victims can offer.
As Paul, Obi Abili is transformed, backwards, from the charming Harvard grad to the tough-talking, streetwise hustler he is revealed to be. Anthony Head is the art dealer who only sees dollar signs in his Cezannes and dismisses Paul as soon as his guise is lifted. It is left to Lesley Manville’s Ouisa to find some sympathy for the well-prepared interloper who has scratched a chink in her money-loving armour.
Though the play centres on these three characters there is a substantial supporting cast, including the couple’s children, played as caricatures of surly teens. The fast-paced dialogue and busy nature of later scenes, as everyone tries to discover Paul’s true identity, contrast with the lone figure who remains an outsider in the world to which he so wants to belong. He may only be six degrees away, but their worlds couldn’t seem further apart.