Picasso at the Lapin Agile

By David A. Rosenberg

From smart-alecky, clever, intelligent, jokey Steve Martin comes his smart-alecky, clever, intelligent, jokey play titled “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” If you’ve never seen it, catch it in revival at Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. The bubbly production highlights Martin’s optimistic musings on the future and on the difference between talent and genius – interwoven with bathroom gags.

Digging into his penchant for creating quirky characters, Martin imagines what a meeting would be like between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso at the beginning of the 20th century (1904, to be exact). The rivalry between these two towering figures, surely to become among the half dozen most important in our time, is played out in a Paris bar called “Au Lapin Agile” (“The Lively Rabbit”). The play is as high-spirited and occasionally randy as that cottontailed creature.

The competition between Einstein and Picasso for recognition reaches its climax in a funny duel with pencils and paper. That’s about as much action as the evening contains, except for a few passionate smoochings between Picasso and whatever female happens to cross his path. Oh, yes, there are those desperate trips to the bathroom by Gaston, a local old man feeling his diminished powers, acted by David Margulies with scene-stealing aplomb.

A plot being non-existent, Martin relies on goofy characters, all of whom seem extensions of his own comic personae. Freddy (Tom Riis Farrell) is the bistro’s proprietor, a big man in the blustery mode of legendary French actor Raimu. Penny Balfour is spirited and accent-prone as Germaine, Freddy’s helper and paramour.

As various women, the beautiful Dina Shihabi acts with ingratiating humor, while Ronald Guttman is an imperious art dealer, Jonathan Spivey an ambitious Schmendiman (read “shmendrick,” Yiddish for a weak no-account) and Jake Silbermann, subdued as the mysterious stranger whose identity shall remain a secret here.

Grayson DeJesus is solid as the sensuous, egotistical, womanizing Picasso, sure of his talent both at the easel and in bed, As Einstein, Robbie Tann takes full advantage of the evening’s best role. His physicist is giddy yet serious, a genius whose mind works as fast as the activity in the universe he so longs to decipher.

Gordon Edelstein directs with one eye on the human comedy, the other on the mysteries of creativity. His final coup de theatre is stunning, helped by Donald Holder’s superb lighting.

As for “Picasso,” it was first produced in 1993. Nine years later, in 2002, Martin wrote a hilarious adaptation of “The Underpants,” which Long Wharf produced last season to great acclaim. Obviously, he learned a lot about playwriting between the two offerings.

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