With the 20th century staggering to a close, marked by unbelievable achievements and unimaginable horrors, Steve Martin has created arguably the first play to wrap up the century. Bringing together three of its most influential figures, and written in a style that borrows from one of this era’s key innovations — the sitcom –“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” is both intellectually stimulating and laugh-aloud funny. If it ultimately doesn’t live up to its heady ambitions, it’s still an entertaining evening.
Although “Picasso” is Martin’s first play, it’s a logical career detour for the actor/comedian/writer. For all the initial notoriety given his arrow-through-the-head silliness, he long ago proved to be a literate scriptwriter (adapting “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Silas Marner” for the screen), a serious art collector and a deep thinker.
He brings all of those qualities to this play. Set in a Paris bar in 1904 (the Lapin Agile was the subject of an early Picasso painting), the work centers on an imagined first meeting the painter (Tim Hopper) had with Albert Einstein (Rick Snyder). The timing of the play is critical, presenting these two men at the moment just prior to achieving their breakthrough work — Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, the foundation of modern physics; and Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” a touchstone of cubism and modern art.
Bursting with self-confidence and youthful lustiness, and inspired by the possibilities of the new century, these respective champions of the mind and the heart debate and challenge each other, ultimately discovering they have more in common than either thought.
Martin stages a funny confrontation between the two men soon after they meet, each sure he holds the key to the new century’s greatest idea. As they circle a table in the bar, pencils at the ready, they shout “draw!” in unison, both scribbling something on a piece of paper.
“Yours is just a formula,” Picasso says dismissively when looking at what Einstein has produced.
“So’s yours,” the scientist answers, a gleeful twinkle in his eyes.
All this heady yet high-spirited banter about the meaning of genius, the sources of creative inspiration, the challenges of modernism is witnessed by the bar’s proprietors and patrons.
Looking something like the 1904 equivalent of the cast of “Cheers,” the bartender and his wife (Tracy Letts, Rondi Reed), the sly old-timer with a weak bladder (Nathan Davis) and the Picasso groupie (Paula Korologos, who also plays Einstein’s date and a third female admirer) are a Parisian chorus commenting on the two great men’s boasts and accomplishments.
Martin notes the everyday genius in each person by reserving for these otherwise unexceptional characters a surprising monologue of truly inspired insight. For example, Reed’s randy bar proprietress presents a bitingly accurate prediction of what the century holds in store — cruelty will be perfected, there would be a brief lawn flamingo fad and so on. Then she dismisses it with a gesture reminiscent of Martin’s character, Theodoric of York, Medieval Barber, on “Saturday Night Live.”
Meanwhile, the play’s two centerpieces conclude they alone can’t be the 20th century’s only shining stars. In a bit of “Laugh-In”-style lunacy, a pretender named Charles Davernow Schmendiman (Troy Eric West) makes a noisy bid. Like many loud self-promoters, he does indeed make his mark, albeit an unanticipated and decidedly minor one.
But Martin has a bigger notion. From 50 years in the future, he brings a certain singer — to reveal his name would ruin one of the play’s pleasant surprises. Bringing some later-era cynicism to the two young genius’ enthusiasm, he proves that when their names are literally written in the stars — when the people of the United States, anyway, choose their most influential figure — his will be three times as big.
This points to Martin’s ultimate, yet unclear, point. A refined intellectual still pegged with a “wild and crazy guy” reputation, he’s exploring the struggle between being a genius or just famous, between epochal ideas and mere notions, between the optimism of the new and the skepticism of the familiar.
It’s an ambitious agenda, one that Martin never quite sorts out, even if the actors turn in spirited, convincing performances.
Instead, the play settles for being merely smart and funny, not unlike the playwright. It also serves as a long-overdue L.A. debut for Chicago’s acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater. Artistic director Randall Arney keeps the complicated themes and the breakneck speed at which this comedy is delivered from becoming too overwhelming.