Tonight, before a crowd of 300 decidedly chic art fanciers, a group of internationally renowned artists gave a gallant reading of "Catch Desire by the Tail," Pablo Picasso's first play, and one of the few efforts he made as a writer.

British artist David Hockney, best known for his movie "A Bigger Splash," his opera sets, as well as his paintings and drawings, extended his versatile realm, making his acting debut.

Paloma Picasso, the artist's daughter, looked on. His widow, Franc,oise Gilot, too. Kitty Carlisle Hart, and a whole group of Francophiles, lead by Andre Gadaud, the French consul general, were seated in the elegant Guggenheim Museum auditorium. Artists Louise Bourgeois, Marisol, Beverly Pepper, Tony Rosenthal, June Wayne, Jack Youngerman, Red Grooms and French actress Philippine de Rothschild were also in the cast.

The play was written in Paris in January 1941: The German occupation had dampened all spirits. Few had food. Few had heat. Few had new clothes. Picasso, who is torn between Marie The're se and Dora Maar, trades brush for pen.

For the amusement of his destitute friends, he turns out the story of -- well, how a man survives under such conditions, a jack-in-the-box of double and triple meanings. "A painting in words," Gilot said.

When it was first performed, such notables of the French intellectual scene as Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre appeared with the painter. Tonight's production was put on with the Ubu Repertory Theater.

"It wasn't my late husband's first effort at writing," Gilot told the black-tie crowd before the play began. "Scribbling in Spanish and French, he had attempted 'automatic writing,' but no one could understand it."

Playing the central role of "The Swell Foot," a roughly autobiographical character Picasso created for his play, Hockney received a good portion of the audience's laughs. But, on balance, there seemed less enthusiasm for the play, especially when "Swell Foot" droned on about sex and scatology. The biggest laugh of the night came when he compared a part of the female anatomy to baked beans. Grooms, as "The Curtain," seemed to be the night's scene stealer, judging from audience reaction.

Black and white reproductions of Picasso's Cubist paintings decorated the stage, with the action taking place around a semicircle of nine chairs.

Beverly Pepper, playing "Skinny Anxiety," also pulled in peals of laughter when she looked at "Swell Foot" and started to sing his praises: "He's as beautiful as a star . . . His whole body is filled with the light of a thousand shining electric bulbs. His hands are made of transparent peach and pistachio ices . . .

"You know the whole shebang is about Picasso. It's his story," Louise Bourgeois said afterward. "I mean, that Hockney, he was playing Picasso. Can you imagine?"