What would happen if two of the most influential and prolific geniuses of the 20th century randomly met and hung out for a night at a bar? In Picasso at the Lapin Agile, award-winning actor, comedian and writer Steve Martin imagines and conceives just that, as visionary, young virtuosos Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein meet in a bohemian Parisian café on October 8, 1904.
Set in a rhapsodic bar, the Lapin Agile (roughly translated, “nimble rabbit”), a famous cabaret in the Montmartre district of Paris, Martin’s one-act comedy creates a hypothetical meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein shortly before Einstein published The Special Theory of Relativity and Picasso painted Les Demoiselles D’Avignon. Famous for its artistic clientele, the Lapin Agile, at the turn of the 20th century, was a spirited watering hole, and the source of much-heated philosophical debate about the nature of art and beauty.
No doubt, the Steve Martin’s what-if premise, much like his quintessential brand, comes with expectations of absurd twists, over-the-top characters, quick-draw quips and kick teeming one-liners, but director and set designer Daniel Douek strikes the right balance of foolishness and anticipation, prompting ample sparkles of laughter, romance and nostalgia throughout the 90-minute production.
A 25-year-old Einstein, one year before his theory of relativity was published, and a 23-year-old Picasso, three years before painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, have a lot of ground-breaking ideas that nobody takes seriously yet, which provide a framework for hilarity, as the two protagonists debate the value of art as a science and science as an art.
Harris Allegier portrays Einstein as a cerebral pragmatist, underplaying him into the background, while Felix Hernandez overplays Picasso with raw physicality and open emotion. Both men convincingly argue their opposing points of view, reflecting a personal bias for science or art as the change agent for the 20th Century. They even participate in a duel with pencils, hurriedly drawing their best ideas on napkins to prove the beauty of their creations.
“You take a couple of geniuses, put them in a room together, and … wow,” says Gaston (Scott Graham), the “newly old,” sex-obsessed bourgeois with a weak bladder. Indeed, Gaston aptly sums it up the fascinating dichotomy between the two protagonists.
Hernandez manages to make Picasso arrogant without being at all detestable, issuing put-downs so matter-of-factly that they feel like punch lines. For instance, when his art dealer, Sagot (John D’Amato), tells him that his rival Matisse is self-deprecating, Picasso replies: “Good. It saves me the trouble.”
Allgeier’s Einstein, endearing accent, uproarious laughter and all, is a more modest man, as he is still slaving away at a patent-office job (and working out the theory of relativity), while Picasso is already an established artist. Depicting a fateful but fictitious turn-of-the-century encounter between the young Pablo Picasso and an equally young Albert Einstein, the script is a scattershot mix of jokes and philosophizing suggested by the meeting of these two masterminds.
Lapin Agile’s inviting, illuminating antique bar sets a tantalizing mood. The cast of gently goofy supporting characters, directed with élan by Daniel Douek, includes Suzanne (Gemma Davimes), a pouty woman who has had a one-night stand with Picasso and wants to go for two; the down-to-earth bar owner, Freddy (Chris Carothers); Freddy’s sassy significant other and waitress, Germaine (Ashley Gerhardt); Gaston (Scott Graham), a bad bladder patron who is new at being old (“getting used to it, really”); Picasso’s canny art dealer, Sagot (John D’Amato); Einstein’s date, the Countess (Hanna Kempton), and Schmendiman (Bennett Remsburg), a fictional inventor who fully expects to be just as well remembered as Picasso and Einstein.
Among a batch of fine performances, Orbie Shively’s is a standout. Shively plays “The Visitor” who arrives to settle the dispute between Einstein and Picasso, suggesting that neither may reach the pinnacle of his success. Perhaps, it is Martin’s way of taking a poke at our culture’s fascination with celebrity and, sometimes, lack of appreciation of the geniuses of art and science. Surely, this is not the man expected to show Picasso the way to Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, but then again, it is a Steve Martin play, and true to form, he works in a range of styles. One minute, Freddy and Germaine are arguing over whether she is a post-romanticist or a neo-romanticist. The next, Gaston is making bathroom jokes. The playwright finds genius something to laugh about, as well as to celebrate.
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, The Salem Players’ production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a play brimming with a seductive innocence and optimism, fueled by puns and pratfalls; a fun romp through history set against the dawn of the 20th Century.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile played on October 17, 18, 24 and 25, 2014 at The Salem Players at The Salem Lutheran Church – 905 Frederick Road, in Catonsville, MD. For more information on their season, go to their website.