Jeffrey Hatcher sets out to evoke the signature artist of the 20th century in just over an hour at the Geffen Playhouse. Of course each biographer or dramatist will choose to emphasize different facets of the titan’s life, but those knowing little about him will encounter a satisfying introduction to his life and art in “A Picasso,” and even the connoisseur will be captivated by Peter Michael Goetz’s robust re-creation.
Spectators on each side of the intimate Kenis space are confronted by designer Francois-Pierre Couture’s massive hut, complete with baby-faced Nazi guard on patrol. At the appointed time, the wall rises like a garage door to reveal an underground bunker, with a rickety table and chairs on a Persian rug, flanked by shelves of wrapped paintings and sculpture — a conqueror’s booty.
It’s October 1941, with Paris in the first throes of the occupation, and this is Sunday in the vault with Pablo.
His briskly efficient Gestapo interrogator (Roma Downey) gets right to business. Amidst all the loot (“Stolen?” “Confiscated!”) are three self-portraits that resemble Picasso’s style. Can he authenticate them? There’s to be a show at the Tuileries. He readily recognizes, respectively, a sketch from age 12, another from 26 years later and a sheet of recent doodles. Thank you for your cooperation, Herr Picasso; guten tag.
But the hat and coat — and gloves — come off when he realizes that this “exhibition” is actually a display of decadent art to go up in flames for the delectation of German functionaries. Now he must fight for the lives of his children, as he sees them, and an extended bargaining session commences. How much will an artist concede to protect his life’s work? For how little will an oppressor settle?
The situation is contrived such that Picasso can engage in extended monologues surveying the range of his life and career. Hatcher is determined to shoehorn in every bit of his exhaustive research, so we hear about the famous rescue at birth by an uncle’s cigar smoke, the relationship with lesser painters (which is to say, all of them), the tempestuous affairs with a host of women and the making of “Guernica.”
Interesting anecdotes, but much more the stuff of Art Appreciation 101 than full-blooded drama. It flies because of Goetz. Physically imposing as befits a self-described bull, alternately wheedling and pontificating, he is utterly possessed of that mixture of ego and self-doubt characteristic of the greatest in any profession.
Witty, too: This is a Picasso whose bon mots could be accompanied by rimshots. “How do you publicize surrealism?” “Exaggerate!” Badum-bum.
Goetz has no trouble convincing us that he is the great man, but his co-star encounters difficulties. In the first half her every line drips menace and unspoken threats, like Signe Hasso in wartime mellers such as “The House on 92nd Street”: “I haff to valk out of here vith a Picasso. You … haff to valk out of here.”
Then it’s as if she turned a page of the script and suddenly discovered her character was an art historian — not just knowledgeable but a fanatical Picasso devotee who’d written books on him. Helmer Gilbert Cates could help the actress repair this bifurcated performance by letting us see hints early on of her complicated relationship with Picasso’s work and a struggle to maintain her officiousness in the face of fascination.
In any event Downey becomes touchingly vulnerable once the anguish arrives, and certainly she could inspire any painter, especially Picasso of the prodigious appetite, to drop everything and commit that ethereal beauty to sketchpad or canvas.