I have been thinking a lot lately about one of my favorite plays, Six Degrees of Separation. Written by John Guare, it examines the existential idea that everyone in the world is linked to everyone else in the world by six people, that ultimately we are all someone’s “friend of a friend of a friend”. It was first staged in 1990 and won lots of good awards, and was adapted into a movie (for which Stockard Channing received an Oscar nomination). The play’s story explores what happens when a young con man worms his way into the lives of comfortably wealthy Upper East siders. Flan and Ouisa Kittredge are targeted by Paul, who gains the couple’s sympathy and access to their home by claiming he attends school with their college-aged son. Once Paul’s criminal intentions get him kicked out by the Kittredges, he finds a new victim and starts another con. As his life spirals into destruction, Paul returns to the Kittredges for help yet again. The play’s emotional weight rests on how Ouisa and Flan wrestle with whether or not they should save Paul. What makes a stranger familiar? How much do we rely on the currency of who-knows-who to determine who we let into our lives? Can we recognize the humanity in those who have wronged us? It’s an amazing play, one of my favorites, and I love the concept of the connection by six degrees.
The other thing on my mind right now is Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. It’s a party game that marries the idea of six degrees of separation – that everyone is linked by six or fewer acquaintances – with Kevin Bacon’s ubiquitous movie career. To play, name any actor, and try to link that actor back to Kevin Bacon in six or fewer connections. It elevated Kevin Bacon from famous actor to pop culture icon and created a whole generation of people who committed the cast lists from every one of his movies to memory. There are whole websites dedicated to this game, you can get an app for it, and Kevin Bacon designed his non-profit foundation around it.
It’s at the intersection of Separation and Kevin Bacon where my friend John and I dwell. John and I have been friends for a long time. When I met John, we were at one degree of separation, by way of our mutual friend Todd. Todd was my hair stylist, and he and John started working at the same salon. Our introduction was unremarkable; Todd said to me, “That’s John”, and then Todd and I spent the duration of my appointment talking nonstop and playing Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon. Other than saying “Nice to meet you”, I didn’t talk with John that day; he was with a client, and it’s hard to get a word in when Todd and I get ramped up. I was, therefore, a little startled when back at the salon six weeks later, I walked in to John greeting me by hollering “JIM GARNER!” across the room at me. Just “JIM GARNER!” No “Hello, nice to see you again”, just eye contact and “JIM GARNER!” It took me a second to tie the threads together: this was John, I’d met him last time I was in the salon when I’d played Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, and apparently he was now was throwing a Bacon number gauntlet.
And so, in the ways that our connections to each other make new connections, I had a new friend. That first Six Degrees conversation sums up our dynamic: his agile mind is always one or two or ten steps ahead, and I enjoy playing catch-up the best I can. His intelligence is one of the things I love most about him. It manifests in his wicked sense of humor, in his business instincts, but most of all it shines through in his self-awareness. He knows who he is, and he knows what will work for him, and he stays true to himself.
The stark honesty of Six Degrees of Separation and the silliness of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon – these embody John for me. They are weighing on me now because just a few days back, John revealed that he has been battling invasive cancer for the past year and that there are no longer any effective treatment options. He’s made the decision to move back to his childhood hometown while he still can and to go into hospice there, the place where his beautiful mother and adoring sisters live. It’s all such a shock, and yet it isn’t because it’s exactly how I would expect John to handle these momentous things. Straightforwardly. Matter-of-factly. Uncompromisingly.
Of all of John’s finer qualities, the one that presents consistently is loyalty. His circle is tight, devoted, and deep. It suits John, being attached, which is why he has gone home to be with the ones to whom he is most attached. He has left because he is leaving, ending where he began. In the production notes for Six Degrees Of Separation, John Guare says he structured the play so that the lines of dialogue flow rapidly, to mimic the feeling of time rushing by. That contradiction, of slowing down to read a play about time slipping away, feels accurate. Minutes can drag, but when something is over, all we can think about is how quickly it passed. I have known John for years. I haven’t known him long enough.
Six Degrees Of Separation concludes as Ouisa Kittredge sheds her sophisticated isolation and embraces Paul’s humanity. She recognizes her own vulnerability. It is humbling. Is finding salvation in a flawed package any less a gift? By degrees, we are bound, and by degrees, we let go. Like hand-strung pearls, tightly and expertly nestled, we are forever together and forever distinct from the people in our lives. If we are lucky, we realize that we can bask in the luster of the pearls that surround us. By degrees, our strings grow, and by degrees, they contract. Eventually, our separations are measured by a different distance.
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