Picasso at the Lapin Agile
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 19, 2007
Steve Martin's comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile was pretty much dismissed as a charming trifle when it made its off-Broadway debut in 1995 (by most critics and also, though I was still a civilian then, by me). Which just goes to show you that a work of art, or an idea, is not always accurately judged the first time around (which is one of the thoughts underlying this very play, coincidentally enough): looking at this play today, it's astounding how brilliant is its construction, how durable are its themes, and, especially, how prescient is its conclusion. Picasso at the Lapin Agile may well be the play of the 1990s. Who else saw so much of what lay ahead in the 21st century?
The play takes place at the dawn of the 20th century, in a small cafe in Paris called the Lapin Agile. Here, on this particular night in 1904, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein happen to meet, and a new era is heralded and set into motion. Einstein is 25, still working as a clerk at the Patent Office, putting the finishing touches on relativity. Picasso is two years younger, beginning to gain a reputation as he emerges from his "blue" period; the Demoiselles d'Avignon are brewing and bubbling within his consciousness.
Martin has fun putting these two impossibly legendary figures among ordinary folks in this homely, friendly saloon; he also twits conventions of (post)modern theatre and hurls anachronisms at all of his characters, sometimes with warp speed:
GERMAINE[the waitress]: Okay. You're dealing with the universe and everything contained in it.
EINSTEIN: Why stop there?
GERMAINE: Okay. Okay. How big is this book?
EINSTEIN: About seventy pages.
GERMAINE: Hmm, not too long. That's good. Maybe we can put you in contact with some of our publisher friends. What's the title?
EINSTEIN: The Special Theatre of Relativity.
FREDDY [the barkeep; Germaine's boyfriend]: Catchy.
GASTON [an old man; another customer]: Judging from the title alone, I think it will sell at least as well as The Critique of Pure Reason.
GERMAINE: Is it funny?
GERMAINE: Because if it's funny, you can sell a lot of books.
EINSTEIN: It's very funny.
The play is often hilarious (there's a grand bit in which Einstein painstakingly dissects a joke that always tickles me), but even more often it's very smart—pretty much all the time, in fact. Martin has his two protagonists convey the awe and energy that must come from being on the brink of astonishing discovery; at the end of the play he supplies a third (surprise) visitor to flesh out his triptych of 20th century brilliance, someone who also understands how badly humankind, for all the immense beauty supplied by Einstein and Picasso, will falter in its next hundred years.
Cat Parker's production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile for T. Schreiber Studio is superb, nicely balancing the antic comedy with the script's authentic seriousness of purpose to produce an evening that's enormously entertaining and full of wonder. George Allison's remarkably detailed set provides an ideal environment for Martin's play, and Karen Ann Ledger's period costumes tell us a great deal about each of the characters. Andrea Boccanfuso's lighting is also excellent. (And there's a splendid special effect at the play's end that's quite impressive.)
The eleven-member ensemble is terrific. Richard Zekaria and Josh Marcantel conjure Picasso and Einstein perfectly without ever resorting to parody; they're both particularly effective in conveying the potential just waiting to blossom forth from both of these geniuses, giving us a real sense of what it might have been like to know these men before they became world-famous. Edward Campbell, Jr., plays the surprise visitor with grace and eloquence (to tell you more will spoil the surprise). Frank Mihelich and Maeve Yore ground the piece as Freddy and Germaine, who are our guides into the world of the Lapin Agile, and Jim Aylward is very good as Gaston, the cafe's resident sage. Arela Rivas, Andrea Marie Smith, and Ivette Dumeng deliver fine, shaded performances as three ladies who are admirers of the play's resident geniuses, and Todd Cowdery offers a similarly deep characterization as Sagot, an art dealer. Rounding out the company is Michael Black as Schmendiman, a self-proclaimed genius who serves as counterpoint to the two authentic ones; Black plays this role better than anyone I've ever seen, channeling the playwright's "wild and crazy" persona in a no-holds-barred portrayal that's hilarious and rich.
If you've never seen Picasso at the Lapin Agile, then don't miss this fine production; and even if you have, I expect that, like me, you will learn things about this extraordinary play by taking it in one more time. Kudos to everybody at T. Schreiber Studio for giving us such a rewarding treat this spring!