How the playwright got 'Six Degrees of Separation' onto the big screen intact GUARE'S TRIUMPH


Well, there it is. Like it or not, for better or worse, there it is up on the screen exactly as he imagined.

The imaginer is playwright John Guare; the work being imagined -- and seen -- is his fabled stage success "Six Degrees of Separation" as reinvented for the movies by the Australian director Fred Schepisi. The film opened Friday.

"When I look at it," says the excited Mr. Guare by telephone from New York, "it's exactly the way I want it to be. I can't believe it went so well."

Of course part of the reason the film version is so faithful to the stage version is that Mr. Guare had an extremely sensitive screenwriter delicately adapt the work from the original form to the new one: himself.

Plus, he had director approval.

"It was just one little line in the contract," he says, "and it was my only form of power. But I used it to the maximum." Then he issues a little chuckle as if to say, I really pulled one on the big


As a play, "Six Degrees of Separation" was a commercial hit and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, the Obie and the Dramatists Guild's Hull Warriner Award, all for best play. It had similar success in London, and productions have been mounted in Tokyo, Sao Paulo, Sydney, Johannesburg and Istanbul.

Naturally, the first thing Hollywood wanted to do was fix it.

"Because the play was so important to me, I went and talked to a lot of Hollywood directors who were interested in it. I wanted this to be a rational decision, you know, not as if I'd just been reading tea leaves or picking a tie.

"And they all said the same thing.

"It was always: 'Your play takes place in many different time frames as different people tell the same story from different perspectives, and the first thing you've got to do is straighten that all out. Simplify it.' And then they said, 'And you've really got to get a hot actress for the part of Ouisa. Stockard Channing is a wonderful actress, but, you know, she's not a movie star.' "

Mr. Guare says he thought, Oh, really?

"I mean we have audiences who channel-surf across cable every night and can hold nine or 10 different, unrelated narratives in their minds simultaneously, but they're too stupid for this? What, did the audience suddenly get the flu? That depressed me."

And that's why when Fred Schepisi said, "I really like the way it flips back and forth in time, and isn't Stockard Channing perfect for the movie?" Guare pretty much said, "You're hired."

Another advantage to Schepisi was his sensitivity to place, as he'd shown when he directed Steve Martin in "Roxanne," in which a small town in British Columbia became a true part of the drama.

"I said to him, 'Fred, I want you to do exactly the same to Manhattan.' I wanted the same kind of magic place as that village. It was very important to me, because the play had been set on a bare stage.

"It was as if I got to add a new character to the screenplay, without in any way disturbing the original design."

The play, which narrates some extremely strange goings on on the Upper East Side of Manhattan among refined people, had its origin in what Mr. Guare calls a "cockeyed event."

Some years ago, Guare was told by friends of an amazing night when a young man representing himself as a friend of their children showed up at their apartment and spent a wonderful night discussing art and politics and life, and then left the next morning.

Later, they learned he'd made it up entirely; later still they learned he'd pulled similar stunts with others in the same Manhattan social group and eventually, as Guare recalls, "it ended badly."

Guare filed the event away in his subconscious, not sure what to make of it; then, a few years later, browsing in The Strand, a huge used book emporium in New York, he saw an old copy of Sydney Poitier's autobiography with a picture of the actor and his four daughters. Suddenly the elements unified in his mind and he had a play, in which the youth pretends to be Sydney Poitier's son as a way of gaining access to the posh apartments.

It deals with the gap between the genuine and the false.

"The central irony," says Mr. Guare, "is that Flan [played in the film by Donald Sutherland], as an art dealer, takes great pride in his ability to tell the genuine from the fake. But the boy [played by Will Smith] completely befuddles him."

The play also takes on the great American dilemma of race, as each character has to struggle with his own stereotypes and vulnerabilities as he or she tries to figure out what is going on.

"I tried to express my double feelings on this issue," says Mr. Guare. "I mean a part of me thinks, 'This has nothing to do with me, it should just go away and leave me alone.' But the other part of me thinks, 'That's not good enough. I have to change things, I have to deal with it."

Of course he finds no easy answers, just as "Six Degrees of Separation" refuses to offer up a pat ending.

"I hate the pat ending," says Mr. Guare.

"It turns everything into a TV movie, with a little title at the end that says, 'So and so is now serving time' or 'So and so is now working at her loom in New Mexico.' Life isn't like that. I don't have any answers, but I can tell you, it's not like that."

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