Picasso at the Lapin Agile
by Steve Martin
Theatre New Brunswick
Fredericton, October 2001
A decade or so ago, I read an article about Steve Martin working on a play. I thought at the time that it would be great if someone picked up where Woody Allen had left off, with his early plays God and Death, which are wonderful soufflés of heavyweight ideas leavened with witty dialogue and irreverent takeoffs on various dramatic fashions. In the next few years I heard that Picasso at the Lapin Agile had been workshopped at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, enjoyed an extraordinarily successful run in Los Angeles, and since had been regularly revived at various regional theatres and off Broadway, but my first chance to see it didn't come until last week, when Theatre New Brunswick opened its season with a new mounting of the play, directed by artistic producer David Sherren and with all the promise of a set by Patrick Clarke, lighting by Chris Saad and sound design by Leigh Rivenbark, all of whose work I've admired for some years.
That group, and the rest of the TNB company, made our introduction to the play as enjoyable as possible, and if the bottom line is that Steve Martin simply isn't another Woody Allen -- and certainly not another Tom Stoppard, in whose tradition of clever historical drama Picasso was obviously written -- it's still a pretty fine soufflé of an evening.
The premise of the play is that on an evening in 1904 at the Paris cabaret Le Lapin Agile (it existed, and still does, and was so called because its sign showed a rabbit leaping into a stewpot), both Picasso and Albert Einstein show up and meet, at the dawn of the century that was to be shaped by their very different careers. It doesn't make the premise any less promising that Tom Stoppard had already had Lenin and James Joyce meet in his Travesties, but it does mean, I think, that Martin has an obligation to show us why this mythical meeting has dramatic promise.
He does show us its comedic promise. The script, particularly as realized by Matt Baram (a wonderful cross between the young Einstein and a sort of parody of Charlie Chaplin) and Jonathan Monro (a tightly wired and sexually incandescent Picasso), offers about as many laughs per minute as anything I've seen at the Playhouse, only a small percentage of them cheap one-liners. Many of them are daringly recondite -- "A triangle with four points is what Euclid rides into hell," Einstein says at one point -- and many of them a lot less, like Picasso hearing someone described as "self-deprecating": "Good. Saves me the trouble."
Things get underway expeditiously, with Einstein and Picasso, both as yet only at the dawn of their careers, engaging in a wonderful duel of pens ("Mine touches the heart," says Picasso, flourishing what he's just drawn. "Mine touches the head," retorts Einstein." "This will change the future," says Picasso, to which Einstein responds, "Oh, and this won't?"). But it wasn't long before I began to wonder, even in the midst of some pretty funny dialogue, what was at stake here, what anyone wanted and couldn't get or what we, as an audience, were supposed to be expecting or hoping for. Although the play had many of the makings, it didn't seem to have what we've agreed they need ever since Aristotle: a plot. It became apparent that what we were going to get was, well, more clever laughs.
Clearly, we'd be foolish to complain, because we did get them, in spades. We got them partly because of the writing and partly because of the confident, authoritative production. Ed Rashed and Pamela Halstead are clear and strong and functional as Freddy and Germaine, the staff of the cabaret, who keep things going and bring notes of practical reality into the high-flown conversations about the future and the nature of art and science. Aviva Hoffman is vibrant as Suzanne, the Picasso groupie who is (temporarily) devastated when the philandering artist clearly has no memory of what was, to her, a memorable tryst -- and she's equally striking as the Countess Einstein's there to meet, and as another frenetic "female admirer" of -- wait for it -- Schmendiman. Walter Learning is reliably strong and very funny as Gaston, a jokily incontinent habitué of Le Lapin -- sort of a gallic "Norm" in Cheers -- but it's very difficult to see what Gaston is there for, in spite of Learning's wonderful stage presence.
Thus, even as I was admiring the performances of the secondary characters, I was beginning to worry about what Martin was demanding of them. The last three characters to appear -- another would-be historic figure, Schmendiman (Richard Cronin), who proposes, like Picasso and Einstein, to change the world, but has to settle for being the inventor of "saying cheese" before the camera; Sagot the art dealer-cum-photographer (Hank Stinson) and "A Visitor" (Edward Bélanger) who seems intended to be a time-travelling Elvis, arriving in 1904 to introduce Picasso to the style of painting he would become known for -- seem increasingly strained attempts on Martin's part to keep things interesting in the absence of a plot. All three actors find themselves in the unenviable position of having by sheer flair and energy to make up for some fairly flat lines and for the absence of any strong reason to be there. Cronin makes Schmendiman a clownlike figure, exaggerated and frenetic, but doesn't manage to make his lines seem much funnier than they are; Hank Stinson does a solid job of a rather trivial role as Sagot; and Edward Bélanger tries, but isn't among the top ten or fifteen Elvis impersonators I've seen -- and although he plays well off Baram's Einstein and Monro's Picasso, doesn't compensate for the feeling that, had Martin been a better stagecrafter, this could easily have been a five- or six-character play.
It isn't clear to me what to make of the rather perfunctory playing with dramatic convention at the beginning and end of the play. During the first scene, at one point Freddy points out that Einstein has entered early, demonstrating by going down into the audience and plucking a program from someone to show Einstein that he's listed fourth in order of appearance, not third. It's a funny bit, even more so when Einstein obediently exits, waiting to re-make his entrance after Germaine has arrived. But nothing further is made of this till the last line of the play, when Freddy observes how wonderfully coincidental it is that the play fit right in between the moment the lights went up and the moment they went down. It seemed to me that there was an opportunity to make something of the connections between play and reality, in Einstein's science and Picasso's art as well as in Martin's script, but as it happens I couldn't avoid suspecting that Martin simply played with the convention because Woody Allen had done it successfully before.
All in all, however, it's an evening I think you'll feel glad you went to -- not least, perhaps, to watch Patrick Clarke's lovely cabaret perform its agile disappearing act.