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Arc of Triumph

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The idea that we are each separated by no more than six acquaintances has become more commonplace than the play, Six Degrees of Separation, which popularized the notion. John Guare's oft-produced one-act (which is, amazingly, making its local debut with this Phoenix Theatre production) is a masterwork of dark comedy that perfectly describes upper-crust New York and the excesses of contemporary American life.

Guare's writing, which usually combines wit and social commentary, has been widely celebrated. His better-known works include the wonderful The House of Blue Leaves, the Tony-award winning 1972 musical The Two Gentlemen of Verona and the Oscar-nominated screenplay for Louis Malle's Atlantic City. Six Degrees won both the 1990 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play and London's Olivier award during its Broadway run, and was made into a film directed by Fred Schepisi and featuring Stockard Channing in an Oscar-nominated performance.

The play is based on a 1983 newspaper story about a young man who duped several Upper East Side couples into believing that he was Sidney Poitier's son and a friend of his unsuspecting hosts' Ivy League children. In Guare's version, the young man (beautifully played here by veteran actor Bruce Nelson) charms his way into the Fifth Avenue apartment of Ouisa Kitteridge and her art-dealer husband, Flan. Paul accepts the Kitteridges' money (which he spends on a male hustler, whom he invites into their home) and their hospitality, and -- once it's revealed that he's a fake -- provides them with the insight that they don't know their children, each other, or themselves.

Because this is Guare, the comedy is dark and the people are possessed by vulgar hungers (for money, for prestige, for fame -- they'll do anything to appear as extras in a film version of Cats, which they hated on the stage). In the end, despite their desire for more art and more cash, Guare's people discover a greater need: to make a genuine connection with another person; with the art they buy and sell; even with themselves. This connection is, ironically, provided by Paul, the impostor whose elaborately imagined schemes remind Ouisa of her own imagination.

The contrast of truth and fiction is mirrored in every corner of Guare's inspired script, from the double-sided painting that spins above the stage to a pair of college-age women who are polar opposites: A sniffy young rich girl's tantrum is offset by the dreamy dialogue of a starving student who yearns for show-biz stardom. Even the story's great redeeming feature -- its quintessentially New York point of view -- provides a perfect contrast to its suburban American subject.

Director Gary Griffin has orchestrated a perfectly relentless 90 minutes of high comedy and should be handed a palm for casting the wonderful Linda DeArmond in the lead here. DeArmond, her usual elegance obliterated by Ouisa's dithery manner, captures a woman whose existence is bounded by the very things she covets. The supporting cast is impeccable, particularly Harold Dixon as Ouisa's conniving husband, Flan. Also worthy of mention are Laura Durant as a kittenish society dame and Mel Reid as a snooty South African financier.

More startling than the brief flash of male frontal nudity early in the story is the fact that Phoenix Theatre has at last produced a program worth watching. On the heels of the company's recent artistic disappointments, Six Degrees of Separation is a welcome respite and an entertaining reminder of this venerable company's potential.

Six Degrees of Separation continues through April 9 at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell.

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