Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" demonstrates the well-known actor/comedian/author can write funny. But Martin hasn't been able to get beyond the often corny jokes to create a satisfying play.

Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” demonstrates the well-known actor/comedian/author can write funny. But Martin hasn’t been able to get beyond the often corny jokes to create a satisfying play. By the time its 80-minute running time is over, “Picasso” is done in by superficial stabs at character development, the absence of a coherent, compelling storyline and acoarsely directed production that merely emphasizes the work’s faults.

Martin’s tale is set in a Paris bar called the Lapin Agile on a fatefulnight in 1904 when a young Albert Einstein (Jeff Perry) and the painter Pablo Picasso (Tim Hopper) are destined to meet and engage in a war of words.

But before the big encounter, Martin sets the stage with banter among the bar’s habitues. Much of the breezy talk in the early going centers on how Einstein can ensure that his upcoming book “The Special Theory of Relativity” becomes a bestseller. Martin strains for something approaching sophisticated humor here, but it is never as amusing as he obviously wants it to be.

Too much of the time, as the evening wears on, the Lapin Agile regulars crack their quips as if they had just stepped out of a television sitcom. The bartender Freddy (Tracy Letts) refers to Picasso as a painter who’s “nuts about blue,” while Freddy’s mistress Germaine (Rondi Reed) isn’t shy about admitting she’s lusting after a good country boy.

Gaston (Nathan Davis) is an old codger dreaming about past sexual escapades and those to come. The painfully naive Suzanne (Paula Korologos) shows up at the bar searching for Picasso.

The most amusing of the lot is a greedy, outspoken art dealer Sogol, played to perfection by Robert Breuler.

But the evening’s focal point is intended to be the battle of wits between Einstein and Picasso, played rather too broadly by Hopper. Instead of insightfully and wittily exploring the minds of these two great figures, Martin’s sketch reduces Einstein to a brainy flake, while Picasso is portrayed as an amnesiac lech.

Director Randall Arney has done Martin no favors by encouraging his actors to play their lines for cheap laughs.

Set designer Scott Bradley comes up with a believable and inviting turn-of-the-century Parisian bar, warmly lit by Kevin Ridgon.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile

Steppenwolf Studio Theater, Chicago; 300 seats; $19.50 top

  • Production: A Steppenwolf Theatre Co. presentation of a play in one act by Steve Martin. Directed by Randall Arney.
  • Crew: Sets, Scott Bradley; lighting, Kevin Rigdon; costumes , Allison Reed; sound, Richard Woodbury; production stage manager, Laura Koch. Artistic director, Randall Arney. Opened and reviewed Oct. 22, 1993.
  • Cast: Freddy - Tracy Letts<br> Gaston - Nathan Davis<br> Germaine - Rondi Reed<br> Albert Einstein - Jeff Perry<br> Suzanne/Trisha/a female admirer - Paula Korologos<br> Sogol - Robert Breuler<br> Pablo Picasso - Tim Hopper<br> Charles Dabernow Schmendiman - Troy West<br> A visitor - Travis Morris<br>