Astonished by a small pencil sketch tossed off in a moment of passion by Pablo Picasso, a rattled Albert Einstein finally says, "I never thought the 20th century would be handed to me so casually." The year is 1904, the place a Paris bistro called the Lapin Agile, and the artist and the physicist are just on the verge of changing their respective worlds.

Astonished by a small pencil sketch tossed off in a moment of passion by Pablo Picasso, a rattled Albert Einstein finally says, “I never thought the 20th century would be handed to me so casually.” The year is 1904, the place a Paris bistro called the Lapin Agile (roughly, the quick rabbit), and the artist and the physicist are just on the verge of changing their respective worlds — or, more accurately, the whole world — but for the moment, they are a couple of supremely cocky young men trying to sort one another out like gunslingers in a Wild West saloon. The encounter never took place, of course, except in the imagination of comedian Steve Martin, a gifted sketch and screenplay author who made his play writing debut with “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” two years ago at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater. An acclaimed run in Los Angeles followed, and the comedy has now settled in for what should be a profitable stand at the Promenade; next month, the Joseph Papp Public Theater will present a bill of four one-acts by Martin. Picasso and Einstein in a boozy, boisterous meeting is an irresistible comic idea, and if Martin hasn’t exactly stretched it to full-length proportions — the single act checks out after a breezy 90 minutes –”Picasso” doesn’t feel like a padded sketch. True, it never impresses as anything greater than an extended riff from a clever, facile sensibility; then again, there are worse things one can — and often does — encounter in the theater.

Moreover, the play features several inspired performances, chief among them the totally engaging Einstein of Mark Nelson, and John Christopher Jones, in his usual over-the-top form, as a canny art dealer with a discerning eye and a ready wallet who declares that the two subjects that don’t sell under any circumstances are Jesus and sheep.

This is a play in which the preppy-looking Einstein gets the first big laugh shortly after entering the bar by muttering, “I’m not myself today,” and then mussing his hair as wildly as possible. When the owner, Freddy (a somewhat dour, very hirsute Harry Groener, looking as though he’d wandered in from the Gogol play next door), discovers that Albert has a way with figures, he tosses off several hilariously complicated math problems, to which Einstein responds, naturally, with the speed and accuracy of a computer.

For his part, Picasso (Tim Hopper) is insecure (he’s particularly wary of Matisse) and a womanizer; one of his latest conquests is present in the form of Suzanne (Susan Floyd), a pouty, dark-haired beauty offended when the artist at first fails to remember that he slept with her twice one recent day.

The atmosphere grows heady as Picasso and Einstein find a common bond in the realization that they are part of — key to — a future full of possibility and promise. To that extent, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” is a play brimming with a seductive innocence and optimism, fueled by silly one-liners, puns and pratfalls. Indeed, it’s a play that owes quite a bit to Tom Stoppard’s 1975 comedy “Travesties,” in which the lives of Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara (“My art belongs to Dada”) all intersect in Zurich during the first World War.

Martin’s gift for punnery and zingers — not to mention farce and polemic — can only shadow Stoppard’s, but it’s real enough. A larger problem is that we can imagine the author playing every one of these denizens of the Lapin Agile, including an alter kocker (Carl Don) with a busy bladder, and Germaine (Rondi Reed, splendid as the voice of reason), Freddy’s helpmate who lectures Picasso: “You will never have to earn a woman and you will never appreciate a woman.”

To deflate things a bit, Martin introduces a third “genius” in the person of Schmendiman (Peter Jacobson), who has invented a brittle, rigid building material to be used only in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tokyo, and we can hear the author playing him, too. These characters are all, in some way, Steve Martin, which, again, is not necessarily a bad thing. I wish he hadn’t thrown in the towel before finding an end to the play, and I wish the jokes were more frequently better than sophomoric.

Still, director Randall Arney has struck exactly the right balance of foolishness and anticipation. Scott Bradley’s bistro is inviting, particularly in the alluring golden light it’s bathed in by Kevin Rigdon, and Patricia Zipprodt’s costumes are all right on the money.

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” has the virtues, seldom seen these days, of an old-fashioned matinee comedy: There are plenty of laughs, a little romance, a little nostalgia — and it makes the audience feel smart. Nice trick.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Promenade Theater, New York; 399 seats; $45 top

Production

A Stephen Eich, Joan Stein, Leavitt/Fox Theatricals/Mages presentation of a play in one act by Steve Martin. Directed by Randall Arney.

Creative

Set, Scott Bradley; costumes, Patricia Zipprodt; lighting, Kevin Rigdon; sound, Richard Woodbury; wigs, hair, David H. Lawrence; casting, Rosalie Joseph; production stage manager , Mark Cole; associate producers, Jerry C. Bradshaw, George A. Schapiro/Yentl Prods. Opened Oct. 22, 1995; reviewed Oct. 19. Running time: 1 hour, 30 min.

Cast

Cast: Harry Groener (Freddy), Carl Don (Gaston), Mark Nelson (Albert Einstein), Rondi Reed (Germaine), Susan Floyd (Suzanne/Countess/Female Admirer), John Christopher Jones (Sagot), Tim Hopper (Pablo Picasso), Peter Jacobson (Charles Dabernow Schmendiman), Gabriel Macht (Visitor).

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