Jennifer Ward-Lealand commands the stage in ATC’s Six Degrees of Separation

The idea that everyone on the planet is linked by no more than six people is an interesting concept. But as John Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation makes clear – it’s not the fact you’re linked, it’s the six people you’re linked with that matters.

Performed on Broadway in 1990 and later popularized as a film starring Will Smith, Six Degrees of Separation explores the lavish, vacuous world of rich-listers in New York. Jennifer Ward-Lealand plays Ouisa Kittredge, a socialite and the wife of art dealer Flan (Andrew Grainger). The couple’s world is torn apart when an unknown man, Paul, bursts into their apartment with a stab wound, claiming to be a friend of their children. He says he’s the son of actor Sydney Poitier – and might even be able to get Ouisa and Flan a role in his dad’s new movie (a film adaptation of the musical Cats – no, really). But, of course, there is more than meets the eye.

With a small cast and a minimalist stage, a play like this relies on the presence of its actors. Despite some minor volume issues, Ward-Lealand commands the stage and the entire ensemble cast deliver. Ward-Lealand and Grainer are superb in their scenes together, as a New York couple taken off guard by the arrival of a stranger. Tane Williams-Accra, best known for his three-year stint in Shortland Street, and Bruce Phillips are also superb additions, in the roles of Paul and Geoffrey/Dr Fine.

six degrees of separation review

Under Colin McColl’s direction, the entire cast shine, delivering an exciting mix of dramatic and comic. I must note that I was also pleasantly surprised that I didn’t spend the evening cringing at bad American accents, either – it’s largely unnoticeable that the cast are even New Zealanders.

John Parker’s discreet set must also be singled out for praise; it manages to convey wealth and grandeur with just a few columns and chandeliers.

Guare’s script is laced with intrigue, cynicism and, oddly enough, relevance – despite being 30 years old. It’s not just the fact there are several jokes about the ridiculousness of a film version of Cats (I was sure these were added to make the show more timely), but the themes of class and inequality feel all too real. However, perhaps due to its American setting and 90s-centric story, I feel like some its message was a bit lost on me. It felt like Guare was trying to say something incredibly important but I left without a moral message, rather just having had a good time. I might be wrong here, and it hardly matters really.

Six Degrees of Separation makes for a superb night at the theatre, thanks to a powerhouse ensemble and an enticing concept. And remember – “Six degrees of separation between me and everyone else on this planet. But to find the right six people.”

Reviewed by Stewart Sowman-Lund.

4 stars

Six Degrees of Separation is on at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 30th August.