A much-produced legit staple since its preem in 1993, Steve Martin's imagined 1904 Parisian night out with twentysomethings Pablo Picasso (Eric Ashmore) and Albert Einstein (Richard Wylie) works best when it takes on the energetic, no-holds-barred alcohol-tinged ambiance of bar folk who take no responsibility for what they say.

A much-produced legit staple since its preem in 1993, Steve Martin’s imagined 1904 Parisian night out with twentysomethings Pablo Picasso (Eric Ashmore) and Albert Einstein (Richard Wylie) works best when it takes on the energetic, no-holds-barred alcohol-tinged ambiance of bar folk who take no responsibility for what they say, only the desire to say it. In an impressive debut outing, the Company Rep (formerly Actor’s Alley) plows through all the absurdities in Martin’s extended one-acter, absorbing each moment with utter commitment and acceptance, even when they are treated to an impromptu visit from a time-traveling Elvis. Director Hope Alexander wisely offers her ensemble wide latitude while never allowing the scripter’s meandering thematic throughline to go too far astray.

At the heart of Martin’s text is the often intriguing, humorous social confrontation between two neophyte creative giants. The droll, dapper Albert and the raucous, rapacious Pablo roam about the cozy Paris bistro, Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit), indulging in a predominantly lighthearted bout of dueling egos. Involving the more-than-interested bar patrons in their aesthetic musings, each is on the threshold of greatness, straining to unleash his genius on the emerging 20th century.

The main protagonists are well balanced. Wylie is perfect as the petite Einstein whose understated comments and retorts are exquisitely timed, always bringing the attention back to himself with minimal effort. Ashmore’s Picasso travels the fine line between robust characterization and over-the-top caricature but exudes a sensual believability as the Spanish artist who can never quench his appetite for life, sex and art.

The adept supporting cast segues lightheartedly through all the shifting realities, designed to keep the proceedings and audience members off balance. When Einstein first makes his entrance, bartender Freddy (John Edwin Shaw) informs him that he’s appearing out of order. Freddy even asks an audience member for a program to prove it. Later, when the departing Picasso-smitten Suzanne (Jessica Pennington) inquires when the artist will come to her flat, he replies, “When the play is over.”

Also invading the proceedings are two modern-day specters who offer comical but foreboding glimpses at the century to come. Played to the “wild and crazy guy” hilt, Michael Uribes’ Schmendiman is the personification of the mediocrity that will always be challenging those of genius. And the Visitor, the time-traveling Elvis (played to self-deprecating perfection by Dwayne Rider), forewarns Einstein and Picasso that their deserved fame to come will never outshine an icon created by the public.

Among the supporting cast, there are three performances that stand out. Pennington projects a comical but powerful sensuality as the Parisian gamine who has been seduced and forgotten by Picasso. Her passion-laden description of the seduction is one of the highlights of the evening. David Mingrino’s art impresario, Sagot, is glowingly flamboyant, always managing to stay one step below going over the top. And Melanie Ewbank’s barmaid, Germaine, is serenely secure as the most adult character in the room, projecting a wisdom and a sense of reality that always channels the rampaging dialogue of the others back to the here and now.

The sets, lights and costumes of Jackson DeGovia, Nick McCord and Shon LeBlanc, respectively, evoke a wonderful sense of being in another time and place. The understated sounds of Tony Edwards also underscore the proceedings quite nicely.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Circle Theater, El Portal Center for the Arts, North Hollywood; 99 seats; $25 top

Production

A Company Rep presentation of a play in one act by Steve Martin. Directed by Hope Alexander.

Creative

Sets, Jackson DeGovia; costumes, Shon LeBlanc; lights, Nick McCord; sound, Tony Edwards. Opened, reviewed Feb. 22, 2002; closes March 24. Running time: 1 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Cast

Pablo Picasso - Eric Ashmore Albert Einstein - Richard Wylie Freddy - John Edwin Shaw Gaston - Dana Craig Germaine - Melanie Ewbank Suzanne - Jessica Pennington Sagot - David Mingrino Schmendiman - Michael Uribes A Visitor - Dwayne Rider The Countess - Kila Kitu Female Admirer - Roberta Williams
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