FULLERTON — Most of us think we'd be able to see through a scam artist, especially one who shows up unexpectedly and then offhandedly mentions that he's the son of a celebrity.
Consider it: The guy is yammering about this and that and out comes the tidbit that dad is none other than, say, Sidney Poitier, the most influential black actor of his generation. Does skepticism jump into overdrive as we start heading him to the door?
It didn't in New York City in 1983, when a remarkable young con master and petty thief used just such a story to insinuate himself into the lives of several upscale families.
Playwright John Guare took the tale, which was detailed in the New York Times and featured on "60 Minutes," as the basis for "Six Degrees of Separation," currently in an affectingly wry staging at Fullerton College.
In Guare's drama (which wears a light comic overcoat, fitted snugly to this production by director Gary Krinke), we first meet Paul Poitier (LaVelle Wilson) when he arrives at the chichi home of art dealer Flan Kittredge (Brian Kojak) and his striving wife, Ouisa (Arlyn McDonald).
With a tiny blot of blood staining his conservative dress shirt, Paul explains how he was mugged in Central Park. The Kittredges, at first suspicious, offer help, especially after Sidney's name comes up. Paul says he's been estranged from his illustrious father but is hoping for a reunion now that the elder Poitier is in Manhattan preparing a movie adaptation of "Cats."
The couple is thrilled, not only because of Paul's erudition (he gabs beautifully on everything, from "Catcher in the Rye" to the precariousness of the Communist Bloc) but also at the chance to get bit parts in the flick. They chatter gaily about the night as one of the greatest of their lives, and we see just how empty and mannered their lives must really be.
Revealing much more of the plot isn't wise. But it's safe to say that the Kittredges start feeling foolish after they catch Paul having sex with a guy he picks up and takes to their son's bed. Their skepticism grows as friends reveal that Paul has hoodwinked them as well.
* From there, Guare slices away at an amazingly small and provincial world in the city, where appearances and pretense can pass for reality, and where people like the Kittredges and Paul can find comfort by accepting daily masquerades as truth. Paul takes on a false, alluring identity to gain entry to a better society and class. Flan and Ouisa decide to ignore the superficiality of their laughable marriage.
The play isn't about race relations, although Guare does imply that the Kittredges' willingness to accept Paul stems from their belief that he's a cultured black man, an OK one, really not that different from them. Krinke and his able cast have some wicked fun with that, underscoring just how at sea this successful but sadly ridiculous twosome actually is.
Although Wilson needs to project more during his important "Catcher in the Rye" speech, his overall performance is apt enough. Guare doesn't adequately explain Paul's full motivation for these complicated ruses, and Wilson doesn't fill in the gaps. But his portrayal hints at the aberrant psychology, not just his yearning for a better identity, that may be at the core of Paul's compulsions.
* Kojak and McDonald have the more vivid roles, and they play them up. Kojak is clearly something of a hustler himself, and there's twisted admiration mixed with fear in Flan's appraisal of Paul.
He's complicated, but not close to Ouisa. McDonald (who looks more than a little like Stockard Channing, the star of both the original stage version and the movie adaptation of "Six Degrees of Separation") reaches beyond the witty, overly glib facade of this society princess rapidly turning society matron. When she bonds with Paul in ways Flan can't understand, we realize that Ouisa is begging for more than the shallowness she has settled for.
* "Six Degrees of Separation," Fullerton College, 321 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Tonight through Friday and Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 22. $5 to $8. (714) 871-8101. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.
Arlyn McDonald: Ouisa Kittredge
Brian Kojak: Flan Kittredge
Patrick Dall'Occhio: Geoffrey
LaVelle Wilson: Paul
Rafael Martinez: the Hustler
Shawnie Moyer: Kitty
Dan Anderson: Larkin
Bill Johnson: Detective
Shawna Bonaime: Tess
Michael Worley: Woody
Johnne Tyson: Ben
Simeon Denk: Dr. Fine
Melissa Yearta: Melissa
Allen Cutler: Trent
Aaron Martinez: Rick
Sarah Anderson: Elizabeth
A Fullerton College production of John Guare's play. Directed by Gary Krinke. Sets: Chuck Ketter. Lighting: Vincent Gallegos. Costumes: Mela Hoyt-Heydon. Sound: Vance Long. Stage manager: Kelly Fullerton.