Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Even kids dream up play scenarios that involve characters of great interest who never crossed paths, like pantomiming a baseball game scenario with Hall of Fame heroes from different eras. As examples in theater, David Davalos’s Wittenberg traverses reality and fiction to bring Martin Luther, Faustus, and Hamlet into conflict, while Terry Johnson’s Insignificance pairs powerhouses Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe. Humorist-playwright Steve Martin’s entry into the genre is the comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile, whose focus is on the title character’s interaction with the aforementioned Albert Einstein. The Lapin Agile (meaning: nimble rabbit) is a still existing cabaret in Paris’s Montmartre that actually served as a watering hole for Picasso, Modigliani, Utrillo, and more back in the day.
The playwright shows his deep appreciation in combining the respective beauties of art and science by facing off contemporaries who were the kings of their hills and profound game changers in their field. But he doesn’t present them as fully formed and appreciated geniuses, but as intellects struggling to make their work understood in a world unprepared for their innovative thinking in 1904.
The plot, such as it is, deals with self-indulgent discussions between the two about the significance of their work and a compendium of “philosophical topics.” The barkeep and barmaid as well as several other passers-through provide much of the humor, but don’t add much to the central theses of the play. Actually, one of the weaknesses of the script is that any cohesive, intended meaning is so congested and back-ended that it is hard to appreciate what Martin wants as a takeaway other than 90 minutes of skit type humor.
One area of focus concerns the value of and perceptions about art. An uninspired painting on the bar wall of several sheep in a meadow prompts a number of diverse interpretations, including that of Picasso, who, of course, sees women in the images. And in a trenchant observation, when Einstein sees a Picasso line drawing, he wonders why someone like Raphael wouldn’t have doodled something so simple centuries before.
In a nod to the future, an unnamed but obvious American visitor from later decades appears. Soon he notes that the bar crowd “seems to be pretty nice folks,” which prompts a brisk riposte from barmaid Germaine that American travelers to France would appreciate: “How dare you! This is Paris!” In a bit of futurism, Germaine rightly predicts the 20th century will bring everything from commercial flight to the Beatles and a fad in pink flamingo yard decorations. Meanwhile, barkeep Freddy clearly lacks her prescience as he forecasts that the Wright Brothers’ claim to fame will be low-calorie fudge and that Germany will lead the world to peace. An explicit discussion ensues that the 20th century will be better than the 19th, and that it will be remembered more for the impact of its scientists and artists rather than its politicians. Mere mention of the name Hitler is clear grounds for disagreement with that thesis.
Director Timothy Beagley deserves great credit for assembling an extremely well-suited cast and ensuring high energy performances from all. Every actor demonstrates fine comic chops and employs gesticulations and facial expressions that could be seen from the back row of the largest theater, despite the Altarena’s intimacy. Kim Donovan as sashaying and almost always smiling Germaine and Jean Cary as three different love interests are perhaps the most expressive of the major players. Although the script meanders, laughs abound, from snickers to an absolute uproar over a simple situation in which a female admirer enters the bar expecting one man and finding another (providing all imaginable detail on paper would not make the confrontation seem funny, but Cary’s delivery certainly does).
Performance success of course relies largely on the lead players. Asher Krohn offers a spectacular fit with Picasso, who is the closest thing to a straight man in the play. He shares the rounded features and the crusty earthiness of the painter along with his sexual hunger and indignant scowl of superiority. Peter Marietta’s droopy moustache and tousled hair are visually suggestive of Einstein, while his somewhat silly affect, including a hyena laugh work very well, whether they are representative of the real person or not.
Overall, an excellent production makes the most of humorous, but uneven material. R. Dutch Fritz’s scenic design, his third Lapin Agile, is striking, and Peet Cocke’s lighting is passive until its stellar turn in the final minutes, including a starry sky. Each of the actors also deserves recognition, as they were all outstanding. Those not previously mentioned are Erin Gould, John Maio, Damion Clark, Henry Halkyard, and Patrick Glenn.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile, written by Steve Martin is produced by Altarena Playhouse and appears on its stage at 1409 High Street, Alameda, CA through November 3, 2019.