John Guare Pillories New York Social Set
In an interview, the author of `Six Degrees of Separation' talks about making his award-winning play into a movie
NEW YORK — PLAYWRIGHT John Guare has been a dominant figure on the theatrical scene for over two decades. He won a Tony for his book of the musical ``Two Gentlemen of Verona''; a New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best American Play for ``The House of Blue Leaves''; his plays ``Marco Polo Sings a Solo,'' ``Landscape of the Body,'' ``Bosoms and Neglect,'' and ``Lydie Breeze,'' among others, have been performed worldwide. His screenplay for ``Atlantic City'' earned him an Oscar nomination.
His best-known work, however, has been ``Six Degrees of Separation,'' which premiered at New York's Lincoln Center and received numerous awards, including the Olivier Award for Best Play when it was produced in London. A scathing comedy about the New York social scene, it tells the story of Flan and Ouisa Kittredge, socially prominent husband-and-wife art dealers who are taken in by a con man. A young black man shows up at their apartment claiming to be a mugging victim, a friend of their children, and the son of Sidney Poitier. The tale is based on a true event that happened to several of Guare's friends. He took this fateful encounter and transformed it into a moving and extremely funny satire about the art world, social status, parent-child relationships, the need for emotional connection, and the uneasy relationship between the ``haves'' and the ``have nots.''
The play has just been made into a film with a screenplay by Guare and direction by Fred Schepisi (``Roxanne,'' ``A Cry in the Dark''). Currently in 10 major cities, it opens nationally later this month. The playwright recently discussed the evolution of the play into a movie.
Let's start at the beginning.
1938. My favorite color is blue.
What inspired the play?
I was living in England. These friends of mine came there and said, `Do we have a story for you.' This mysterious event had happened. A few months later, it was in the papers. All these other people had been involved, all these lives had been opened up. Five years later, I found myself writing about art, about what was true, what was a forgery. I love paintings; I find it easier to learn about writing through studying paintings. You see the problems laid out so clearly. And I had not seen that world onstage.
How did you integrate your friend's story into what you were trying to say about art?
It's a story about who you open your door to. What makes you open a door and let a stranger into your house. I wanted to write about a perfect night.
How close is the play to what happened in real life?
The real people are not art dealers. They don't need money. They're not out to shake down people to keep their lives afloat. The people in ``Six Degrees'' are close to the edge, living in a state of economic precariousness. They are living hand-to-mouth on a higher plateau. I was interested in telling about people who seemed to have everything.
The play does make a statement about the commercialism of the 1980s.
It was written out of that. It was written in 1989. And strangely, years later, it's become more intense. The bottom fell out of the art market, but the truly valuable art that was around became even more valuable. Now, the stakes are even higher.
Did you struggle with the style of the play? How did you get into it?
Very easily. For example, when the characters mention Kandinsky, I wanted them to trot out and tell the audience who Kandinsky was. Also, I had been working at the theater at Lincoln Center. That stage is unique. It juts out into the audience. There's a very dynamic relationship between the stage and the audience. I wrote the play for that space.
When did you get the idea that it would become a film? On the surface, it does not leap out as film material.
I felt exactly the same way. But the play got a swell response. The reviews were very appreciative, or so my wife tells me, I don't read them, and we got a number of offers. I was not so hot to make a movie out of it because I wanted to make sure it was done right. And if there was going to be a film, I wanted Stockard [Channing] to be in it. She's a great movie actress who's never had the right breaks. Finally, I met with Fred Schepisi, the director (and coproducer), and I felt that I was in good hands.
Were you worried that an Australian director wouldn't have enough of a feel for the New York social scene?
I had worked with two other movie directors, Milos Forman and Louis Malle [both foreign born], and I learned that there's nothing important about where you're from, as long as you share the same sensibility.
What did you face when you began the adaptation?
I didn't want to just photograph the stage play. That's not the way to honor it.
I was struck by how close the film seems to the play.
We had to work very hard to keep it the same. For the play, Tony Walton had designed this sensational minimalist set where we could hop all over the place, and I knew that one of the problems of a movie is that it records reality, and I didn't want reality to drag it down. I had to realize that New York would be a major character in the piece. We used the locations to reveal aspects of the characters' lives.
Were you uncomfortable with the choice of Will Smith, a relatively inexperienced actor, for the complex role of Paul?
I was thrilled about it. It had to be somebody very young. I wasn't worried after I met him. He's the only person we saw for it.
The scene that gets the most reaction from audiences, both in the play and the film, is the one where the kids tell off their parents. Why do you think that scene gets such amazing laughs?
It's a funny scene!
Work with me, John.
(Laughs). OK, I have an answer for that. The children of a friend of mine wanted to see the play, and we warned them that they're not going to like it, that the children were horrible, you're just going to hate them. And they loved it and said the children were wonderful; it was the parents who were horrible. It all depends how you see it.
You were sued by David Hampton, the real-life figure who inspired the character of Paul (the case was thrown out of court). Did you think that that was an ironic footnote? It's almost funny.
It wasn't funny. I don't even want to go into that.
What was your take on him?
I know nothing about him. I met him for ten seconds, once. He posed as Courtney Vance [the actor who played the character on Broadway] and snuck into a function we were having.
The play has received many foreign productions. It's in its second year in Istanbul. Why do these audiences respond to a work that is so specifically New York?
Friends of mine went to see it in Istanbul. They said it was a packed house, that ... the response was the same. I can't explain it. People also said it wouldn't work in London. But it did.
How long have you been aware of the concept of six degrees of separation?
It's a statistical theory that I've been aware of for years. Statisticians felt that you could find anybody on the planet through a trail of six stops. But you have to find the right six people. That's the catch. The characters in the play are trying to find this young man.
Do you think ``Six Degrees'' is your greatest success?
I don't know. ``House of Blue Leaves'' opened in 1971 and has never stopped playing somewhere. ``Two Gentlemen of Verona'' won a Tony for Best Musical, ran a couple of years. I've had a wonderful life as a writer....``Six Degrees'' was a success because it generated more plays from me, it made me want to write more. Since then, I've written a number of plays, which are in various stages of being finished. It made me fall in love with writing again.