Left Brain Meets Right Brain in Entertaining Picasso at the Lapin Agile

By Amy J. Barry

Picasso at the Lapin Agile takes place at the turn of the 20th century in a Parisian bar where Picasso meets up with Einstein, along with an inquisitive bartender, a prophetic waitress, a brilliant countess, a mediocre inventor, a greedy art dealer, and ultimately, a time-traveling stranger.

This was a time in history, prior to World War I, that was ripe with intellectual intercourse, artistic breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries, as well as the accompanying egotism, one-upping, and BS-ing.

All of this is captured in a moment in time in the one-act tour de force at Long Wharf Theatre that has Steve Martin -- it’s writer -- written all over it in the wonderful humor that makes the audience feel like they’re in on an inside joke.

In fact, most everything about the production, splendidly directed by Gordon Edelstein, makes the audience feel engaged with the crazy cast of eccentric characters -- each with a clearly defined role.

First off, in one corner, representing the left side of the brain is the young Albert Einstein in a delightful performance by Robbie Tann, who looks the part with his disheveled hair, exuding a charming naivete and contagious enthusiasm about his soon-to-be-published, world-changing Theory of Relativity.

In the other corner, representing the right side of the brain, is the equally youthful, excitable, and brilliant Pablo Picasso -- who doesn’t actually come into the bar until about halfway through the 85-minute play. But where Einstein is a harmless geek, Picasso is a handsome, womanizing egomaniac, on the verge of painting his career-making Les Demoiselles d’ Avignon, considered groundbreaking in the cultivation of both cubism and modern art. Grayson deJesus captures the charisma of the 23-year-old Spanish painter, whose utter self-confidence only wanes when the name Matisse comes up in conversation.

The two men spar and enjoy a battle of artistic versus scientific sensibilities, realizing that they actually have a lot more in common than they initially thought.

“We’re not so much going to change the century as bend it,” Picasso points out.

Also joining in the lively banter is Tom Riis Farrell as Freddy, the bartender/owner of the bar, who mixes an occasional profound thought with his drinks; David Margulies as Gaston, an older Frenchman who gets straight to the point and adds comic relief on his many trips to relieve himself; Ronald Gutman as Sagot, Picasso’s money-hungry art dealer, and Jonathan Spivey as Charles Dabernow Schmendiman -- a clueless young inventor who can’t hold a candle to Picasso or Einstein.

The large cast for a short play also includes the talented Dina Shihabi in several roles: the beautiful young Suzanne who is obsessed with Picasso and their one liaison and angered that he doesn’t remember her; The Countess, Einstein’s love interest who is completely on his wavelength -- as nerdy as she is gorgeous; and the Female Admirer, who Picasso assumes idolizes him, but is really enraptured with Schmendiman. Penny Balfour is cast as Germaine, the attractive waitress -- who has slept with Picasso, and is also well-versed on what the 20th century will bring (although her revelations get a little long-winded).

And arriving at the end of the play is Jake Silberman as “A Visitor” (from the future),” who is clearly Elvis Presley, replete with blue suede shoes and a country twang, exemplifying the absurdity of some of the “advances” of the century to come.

Set designer Michael Yeargan has created a well-worn, inviting French bar where all the action takes place and Jess Goldstein’s period-correct costumes help draw the audience into the historic timeframe.

Written in 1993, this was Martin’s first full-length play, and 16 years later it’s still relatable and relevant.

Although you may not learn more than you already know about the theory of relativity and modern art, you will enjoy Martin’s irreverent humor and the interactions of the characters that make one nostalgic for an earlier era when people spent their spare time discussing important ideas in a cafe instead of posting pictures on Facebook.

Picasso at the Lapine Agile is at Long Wharf Theatre, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven through Dec. 21. For tickets, call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org

This review appears in Shore Publishing community weeklies,and online at zip06.com and theday.com.

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