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One of the special pleasures of the past 25 years has been watching Steve Martin transform himself from comedian of genius to writer of dazzling promise. He was always a writer, of course, just as he was always a musician, but with his 1993 comedy Picasso at the Lapin Agile, recently seen at the ArtsCenter Stage, Martin declared himself a dramatist to contend with.
The play, a beguiling pastiche that imagines a meeting between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in the Paris of 1904, is an exercise in style, filled with deliberate anachronism, theatrical self-consciousness, and a series of literate bons mot of the type that may not make always you laugh out loud but which keep you smiling happily, and thoughtfully, throughout. One of my companions invoked Travesties by way of comparison, referring to Picasso as "Stoppard Lite." That's fairly accurate, though perhaps unfair. Steve Martin is not the accomplished dramatist Stoppard was by the time he concocted the astonishing Travesties, and the canvas in that was considerably wider — not merely 20th century artistic and literary movements, but Bolshevism, Oscar Wilde, theatrical expression, time, memory and other matters of cosmic importance.
Yet Martin, in slightly less than 90 minutes manages, in his first full-length play to get at some fairly celestial matters himself. Placing his antagonist-protagonists at this moment, so early in the crowded century, when each is close to aligning himself among the immortals — Einstein with his theory of relativity, Picasso with such complacency-shattering iconography as "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon" — and doing so with a sly knowingness of all that is to follow, allows the playwright space to consider the weightiest of matters in the lightest of terms. The philosophical ruminations between the characters (not merely those lobbed by the artist and the scientific theorizer, but those added by the many denizens of the Lapine Agile itself) encompass the essentials — art, theory, sex, the future — with a bracing wit and febrile intelligence that is sheer bliss to hear, even in a production that, while lively and well-staged, was less than optimal.
Although Jeri Lynn Schulke directed with aplomb, the performances were highly variable. While Nick Karner, as the overly confident inventor Schmendiman and Jeff Aguiar as the art dealer Sagot were… — "larger-than-life" is the polite phrase, I think… — Jon Wilner, as the habitué Gaston, was pitched so low he was nearly inaudible, and his many pauses were unnerving. The Picasso of Adam Sampieri combined brash boyishness and erotic calculation: The Artist as Priapic Braggart, perhaps, but one, as with Einstein, on the cusp of a greatness he can sense with his entire being. Dan Oliver's Freddy, the proprietor, was appropriately gruff yet unexpectedly sagacious, while the splendid Jay O'Berski as "The Visitor" (aka, Elvis), while saddled with an atrocious wig, wisely eschewed — as does Martin the playwright — the clichéd "Thankyouverymuch" Pressley stereotype in favor of a gentle, almost dreamy, sang froid.
Even better were the women, of whom there appeared to be a small armada but which my program assured me were merely two. Jenny Wales' Germaine was beautifully proportioned, half nymph and half philosopher, while in three utterly distinct roles Sarah Donnell was a bloody marvel, especially in her lengthy turn as the ebullient, half-forgotten Suzanne. The most astonishing presence of all was Lucius Robinsons as Einstein — a role the actor inherited at the last minute but which, to judge from the dazzling speed and unerring quality of his performance, he seemed to have been playing for years.
Jil Chistiansen's sound design, at the performance I caught, rendered her compositions so faint it was rather like over-hearing music through an adjoining wall. Sachi Denison's costumes were apt and unobtrusive, while Neil Williamson's simple set design was attractively imagined, with its forced perspective windows and colored Harlequinade squares on the bar, marred only by an incongruously pedestrian stage right wall.
There are those who argue that Picasso at the Lapin Agile is only a sketch, to which my answer can only be formed as a question: When was the last time you saw a dramatic sketch this artful and intelligent? Not even Noel Coward, or the certified geniuses behind Your Show of Shows, wrote with such word-drunk audacity. Better a sketch from Martin, I say, than a roomful of Martinized canvases.