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 C'ezanne, 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 discover their guest in bed with a homosexual hustler he has managed to sneak into the apartment. For the remainder of this brief, bizarre piece, Mr. Guare follows Paul's further exploits. 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.''
The title alludes, among other things, to the relationship supposed to exist (according to Ouisa) among any group of six people. But as Paul wryly observes, ``You have to find the right six people to make the connection.'' Conflicts can be social, racial, sexual, familial, economic - to name a few. It comes as no surprise that Guare's latest mix of hilarity and anguish ends poignantly.
While the author appears to let his imagination run wild, everything is artistically under control. And Jerry Zaks is the ideal director to keep the comic fantasy on track. He is aided and abetted by the splendid cast assembled on (and sometimes slightly off) stage.
As the petty criminal, James McDaniel nonchalantly pursues his career (in one case with tragic consequences). This fine actor gives an extraordinarily subtle and compelling performance of a dissembler so skilled and disarming that even his most outrageous fantasies can seem plausible. Seizing the opportunity the author provided, Mr. McDaniel transforms what could have been a criminal case history into a fantasy of and about the imagination.
As Ouisa, the luminous Stockard Channing is both funny and eventually moving in her portrayal of the woman's progress from the clich'es of liberal chic to a more fundamental humanity. When Ouisa at last goes to the emotional heart of the play, Miss Channing does not fail the moment or the author.
John Cunningham's Flan is the kind of gambler who, as Oscar Wilde once said of cynics, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing - not even the two-sided Kandinsky painting revolving above designer Tony Walton's luxurious, state-of-the-art setting.
Besides those previously mentioned, the more conspicuous members of an excellent company include Sam Stoneburner (as Geoffrey), David Eigenberg (as the hustler), Kelly Bishop, Peter Maloney, Paul McCrane, Stephen Pearlman, and Brian Evers. The imaginative Lincoln Center production was costumed by William Ivey Long and lighted by Paul Gallo for full theatrical effect.