REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Did you ever have one of those dreams where a variety of random celebrities shows up in one place? That seems to be the gist of Steve Martin’s whimsical play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, in which a triptych of 20th century icons meet at a bar in Montmartre, Paris in 1904. The show closes this weekend at the Conejo Players Theatre. The real Lapin Agile was a cabaret that attracted Parisian bohemians, lowlifes, artists, and other eccentrics, and was the subject of one of Picasso’s early paintings, “At the Lapin Agile” (1905).
Martin sets the story in 1904 when Spanish painter Pablo Picasso and German physicist Albert Einstein were at the beginnings of their groundbreaking careers in art and science, respectively. Like the sitcom Cheers, Martin populates the bar with a variety of colorful characters who observe Picasso and Einstein’s ruminations about genius and talent. Almost from the very beginning, we realize that this “what if” encounter is not to be taken seriously and that it wasn’t based on any actual meeting between the two, it is simply a product of Martin’s wildly inventive imagination. The play, which was first produced in 1993, caused some controversy due to its sometimes ribald subject matter but generally revolves around Picasso and Einstein’s perspectives relating to art and science. One wonders if Martin devised the entire play just to get off one outrageous pun – when Einstein and Picasso engage in a duel over their philosophies and challenge each other by shouting “Draw!” as if in a “B” Western, only to produce a pair of pencils with which to fight it out on paper.
If you can imagine Albert Einstein as a Marx Brother, that’s the central notion behind the delightful performance of Matt DeNoto as the noted physicist. With a head of hair that looks like an out-of-control bird’s nest, DeNoto makes Einstein as lovable as he could be at 25, making casual scientific observations that go over the heads of the other characters. In fact, all of the characters in the play are likable. Mark Fagundes, who normally plays abnormal, zany characters, is subdued (for him) as Freddy, the owner/bartender of the club. Amie Woolweber is wonderful as Germaine, Freddy’s sassy waitress and girlfriend, who reveals a past tete-a-tete with Picasso. Clayton McInerny plays the 23-year-old Picasso as if he were Errol Flynn, a dashing, hot-blooded, swashbuckling, love-’em-and-leave-’em Casanova who is catnip for women. McInerny scores extra points for uncorking a wine bottle with his teeth and spitting the cork directly into a nearby spittoon, resulting in a gasp of amazement from the audience. (One wonders if he got it right in every performance.)
Sommer Branham plays Suzanne, one of Picasso’s recent conquests, with her usual charm and a delicious laugh that is worth waiting for. Patrick Rogers is Sagot, a flamboyantly prissy art dealer who is eager to make a buck on whatever Picasso produces. Gary Cunial plays the prostate-challenged Gaston, who “collects” women but is unable to touch them. Cunial has a great running gag with Fagundes when he discards paper towels on the floor after his frequent trips to the bathroom, the wadded up towels picked up with disgust by Fagundes. R. Shane Bingham makes the most of his short time on the stage as Schmendiman, a would-be inventor with more gumption than talent. The wonderful Lori Lee Gordon always brightens up any production she is in; she plays dual roles in the play: as the Countess, an admirer of Einstein’s, and as a fervent groupie of Schmendiman.
Martin’s script sometimes lapses into anachronisms just to keep us off our balance, as when Freddy picks up a Bo Diddley-shaped rectangular guitar and sings a few bars from Percy Sledge’s ’60s hit “When a Man Loves a Woman.” In the second act, without warning, —-whoosh! – in blows Elvis Presley from the future, in all of his sartorial Memphian splendor, effusively played by James Cluster. The addition of Presley (noted in the program simply as The Visitor) into the story was Martin’s way of showing that genius came in other forms in the twentieth century, but. in my opinion, the inclusion of Presley robbed the play of its charm and smacked of gimmickry, an example of Martin going just a little too far in his efforts to be a crowd pleaser.
Although Picasso at the Lapin Agile works on many levels, it is still nothing more than an extended television sketch; a joke without a punchline. The fascinating philosophical discussions inherent in the play are never developed completely, as they might have been if Steve Allen had paired Einstein and Picasso in his old Meeting of Minds PBS series. As it stands, any notion of an intelligent philosophical exchange of ideas is submerged by talk of sexual conquest, incontinence, and celebrity.
Despite the occasional deficiencies of the show itself, director Deidre Parmenter has done a marvelous job in putting the actors through their paces, revealing the warmth, wit, and absurdity of Martin’s premise. The attractive set design, which includes original art works from students at the Studio Channel Islands Arts Center, was designed by Rick Steinberg. Lori Lee Gordon doubled as costume designer, and produced the ravishing outfits worn by her and Branham, as well as Picasso’s earth-toned artist’s outfit, complete with scarf, a nice touch.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile closes May 31 at the Conejo Players Theatre.