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Infiltrating the ranks of the rich and famous 

There really was a clever young con man who pretended to be Sidney Poitier's son and insinuated himself into the homes of wealthy New Yorkers, whom he charmed and robbed. Playwright John Guare heard the story from friends who were victims of that fraud.

            For his play Six Degrees of Separation Guare used that incident as he used the actual visit of the pope to New York for the plot of his play House of Blue Leaves: a real event to set up some wild extrapolations. The Jewish Community Center is introducing Guare's 1990 award-winning play to Rochester in an admirable production.

            Six Degrees of Separation is an intriguing play, cheeky and amusingly witty, but disturbing too. This satisfying production ends with an unsettling, mournful feeling that the trivial movie version could not capture.

            Director Ralph Meranto allows some of his cast to go overboard in the scenes satirizing the shallowness and dysfunctional family relations of the urban upper-crust circle of Flan and Ouisa Kittridge. But he lets us feel the sadder betrayal of the "have-not" young man's hopeless desire to finally fit in among the "haves." Meanwhile, we see the hilarious, sexy --- and in one instance fatal --- results of Paul's hoaxes. No one ever learns who Paul actually is.

            We first see Paul burst into the Kittridge's home, bleeding from a supposed mugging. He knows all about their double-sided Kandinsky painting and endears himself at once by telling them what else their children fondly said about them. Since none of these couples get along well with their semi-estranged college-kid offspring, that ploy works well with all of them.

            The Kittridges are trying to talk a dinner guest into investing $2 million in their scheme to buy a Matisse and sell it at a profit. Paul charms them all, cooks a gourmet dinner for them, and facilitates the sale. After they find him in bed with a hustler, Flan and Ouisa kick him out, later tell the amusing story to their friends, and find out that several of those have also been bilked by Paul in the same way. Ouisa's obsession with this bewitching young man leads to later encounters and the haunting conclusion.

            A bare, structural stage serves for the many shifting scenes, but Ethan Sinnot's elegant set presents handsome hints of the characters' opulent digs and artwork. Chris McCormack's stylish lighting locates the changes in place and time, and Kathy Kenez dresses the rich folk richly.

            And this production is blessed with two outstanding performances by unusually gifted young local actors. Johnnie J. Simmons is ideally cast as Paul, the seductive young man driven to con these liberal, wealthy people and revel in his own panache while doing so. But his Paul is also persuasively remarkable and promising and pathetically hungry for approval and love.

            Joshua Rice, whom I admired as the sociopathic serial killer in Shipping Dock's Coyote on a Fence,here plays opposite roles splendidly. This young chameleon is utterly believable as the vulgar, almost naked hustler Paul picks up and takes to the Kittridges' home. Then Rice equally inhabits the rich, needy gay nerd, Trent, who picks Paul up and trains him to mimic a spoiled, upper-class child. Before Paul robs him and leaves him, Trent teaches Paul aristocratic manners in return for sex.

            H. Darrell Lance is fine as the South African millionaire, though his accent varies. Paul Dingman is very funny as one of the spoiled kids but less successful as an innocent Mormon whom Paul seduces with an unintended tragic result.

            Generally, I found the characters --- especially the spoiled college kids --- to be exceptionally irritating. I think director Meranto's view of them is too harsh. These should all be superficially appealing, sophisticated, and clever enough to present a surface ideal that we can then see through to the emptiness underneath. Otherwise, why is Paul so attracted --- like the central character in The Talented Mr. Ripley --- to enter into their lives?

            Peter Doyle's Flan anchors the Kittridges' snobbish flaunted taste with a very real, insecure man under the facade. But Davida Bloom is allowed to be so shrill and over-the-top in her early scenes that one has to forget that caricature to appreciate her very touching conclusion. With a sense of wonder that the boy "actually wanted to be us," she tells him, "We love you, Paul." She tells her scoffing husband that she wants to know this remarkable young man and help him develop his talents. The hopelessness of that idea for Paul is no more pathetic than Ouisa's convincing herself that she believes it.

            The title refers to the notion that a connection between any two contemporary people, no matter how separated, can be traced through only six others. If that sounds absurd, so do all the sad and hilarious connections between these people, separated by pretense, opposed desires, and a tenuously fragile sense of self.

            Don't miss Simmons and Rice in this very entertaining play.

Six Degrees of Separation,by John Guare, directed by Ralph Meranto, plays at JCCenter Stage, 1200 Edgewood Avenue, Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through March 20. Tix: $10-$22. 461-2000 ext. 235.

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