Lies, Money and Fantasy from John Guare an Absorbing Tragicomedy Based on a Real Incident. THEATER: REVIEW

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SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION Play by John Guare. Directed by Jerry Zaks. At the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

INSPIRED by an incident reported in the press a few years ago, John Guare's latest exercise in absurdist tragicomedy begins anecdotally and soon plunges into a labyrinth of Guare-ish consequences.

"Six Degrees of Separation" opens in upscale social-comedy style as high-stakes art dealer Flan Kittredge and wife, Ouisa, are entertaining a South African tycoon named Geoffrey. With a $2 million loan from Geoffrey, Flan will be able to buy a Cezanne, which he will then flog to the Japanese for $5 million.

But the calculated sociability is shattered by the surprise entrance of Paul, a young black man who seeks refuge after having, he says, been knifed on the street below. Bandaged, restored to calm, and clad in a borrowed shirt, Paul proceeds with his glib but plausible scam. Referring to the Kittredge children as his friends at Harvard, he tells his unwary hosts that he has come to New York to meet his father, Sidney Poitier, who is preparing to direct a film version of "Cats."

To repay their kindness, Paul insists on cooking dinner for his benefactors. What more delightful consequence of the spontaneous encounter than that the good Samaritans be given bit parts in the movie? The Kittredges are entranced. They are also hooked. They invite Paul to spend the night. It is only later that the horrified hosts discov their guest in bed with a homosexual hustler he has managed to sneak into the apartts. He also eavesdrops on a series of conversations which gradually transform Ouisa's attitude toward the ingratiating con man.

"Six Degrees of Separation" is, at an elementary level, a play about money - the need of it, the lack of it, and how to get it. The script abounds with lines such as: "Rich people can do something for you even if you don't know exactly what it is." At the most sophisticated level, Paul's urbane conversation is sprinkled with allusions ranging from an analysis of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye" to a Donald Barthelme quote that "collage is the art form of the 20th century. …