Picasso at the Lapin Agile, by Steve Martin
Produced by Keegan Theatre at the Gunston Arts Center
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
I saw the world premiere of this play fourteen years ago – a somewhat lackluster performance at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. At the time, I remember wondering how good Picasso would be if it was staged by people who really understood it; who knew how to draw out the concerto of wit that Steve Martin stuffed the play with, and who could underscore the heartbreaking truths that were at its core.
I have seen Picasso staged by Keegan Theatre and directed by Scott Pafumi, and I’ve found my answer.
It’s good. It’s damn good.
Picasso is an imagined meeting between a young Albert Einstein (Eric Lucas) and a young Pablo Picasso (Mark Rhea) in a Parisian bar in 1904. Guided by a ghostly visitor (Mike Kozemchak) from fifty years in the future, never named but clearly identified (“watch the shoes,” he cautions one of the characters as she steps too close to his blinding blue footwear), the two seminal geniuses of the twentieth century come to grips with what it means to be an instrument of the genius of the entire universe.
Prior to that stunning revelatory moment, Picasso and Einstein engage in a compelling battle of wit and rhetoric to see whose vision, and whose art, will define the twentieth century. Will it be the sweeping curve of the universe, or the sacredly beautiful curve of a woman’s hip? Or will both visions fail, and the defining character of the twentieth century be the great Schmendiman (Brian Randall), who has invented the dunce cap, and also a rigid and brittle building material out of asbestos and kitten paws? Eventually Picasso and Einstein (but not Schmendiman) recognize in each other the brotherhood of shared brilliance: two men who know what it means to have the mind of God express itself through their bodies and minds.
Martin populates his play with a small village of characters who take turns grounding the geniuses in reality. The bar’s proprietor Freddy (Rich Montgomery) and his lover Germain (Susan Marie Rhea); the newly old man Gaston (James A. Howard), who has become an expert on women by never touching them; Suzanne (Jennifer Richter), who for a single unforgettable night became the undiluted object of Picasso’s sexual passion; the red-haired Countess (Kerry Waters Lucas) whose love of pointless abstractions intrigues and delights Einstein; the art merchant Sargot (Mick Tinder); and others serve not as comic props but as reminders that the universe is made of clay and gross receipts as well as stars and magic. Their wit equals, and sometimes exceeds, that of the geniuses. (When Gaston comments on premature ejaculation, Germain coyly asks “is there any other kind?”) And when Freddy sets forth his wildly inaccurate projections of the future (Germany will lead a century of peace…France will become the world’s mightiest military power…clothes will be made of wax) he reminds us that the twentieth century was as big a mystery to the men and women of 1904 as the twenty-first century is to us.
There is a fair amount of comic shtick in the first third of this ninety-minute production, and in lesser hands it might seem tedious and without purpose. Director Pafumi, however, treats it for what it is: the gentle, teasing protocols of men and women who’ve gotten to know and like each other over the years. The joking and horseplay aren’t set forth before us for its own sake; they’re the background music which shows what a warm and welcoming place the Lapin Agile really is.
Eventually, though, the background music fades, and the denizens of the Lapin Agile stand open-armed against the sweep of time. Electrified by possibility, they smile innocently into the future, unaware that the seeds of Dachau and Selma, the Gulag and Serajavo are in the wind.
Man, this ensemble is good! Montgomery and Susan Rhea move together like a couple who have achieved an understanding, even over those things not meant to be understood. Howard seems as comfortable on his barstool as an infant might be on his mother’s lap. Sargot’s first words seem to be a continuation of a conversation that has gone on for years and which will continue well into the rest of the century. Kozemchak, who physically bears no resemblance to Elvis, radiates the King’s eerie self-assurance and charisma.
Mark Rhea delivers a Picasso made whole and understandable, contradictory parts and all. His Picasso is – as Anthony Burgess once described Napoleon – a machine on top of an animal; a shrewd calculator in art and commerce driven by a ferocious carnal appetite. Crude and open as he is, he is also extremely vulnerable, and one can see why Suzanne melts for him. The scene where the visitor illuminates what awaits for Picasso when his blue period is over is the most moving in the play and, properly done as it is here, one of the most moving in modern theatre.
But it is Eric Lucas as Einstein who dazzles us. Encased in a thin German accent (Pafumi wisely eschews dialect for the French characters except, inexplicably, for Sargot); Lucas gives us the portrait of a man driven to isolation and loneliness by his genius. His struggle to contain his frustration (the scene in which he tries to explain to Gaston why a line can appear straight and be curved is priceless) and the joy he shows at finding, in Picasso, someone who has a way of understanding his perception is a fundamental statement about the human condition. Thanks to Lucas’ portrait, we begin to understand that Einstein’s most difficult task may not have been the discovery of the general theory of relativity but how to live in harmony with men and women who could not see what he saw. It is one of the best performances on a Washington stage I have seen this year.
I have a few quibbles with the production. Randall may some day be a fine actor but right now he is too young and inexperienced to play Schmendiman. Schmendiman is an important character – Martin has said that if he was ever in the play, Schmendiman is the character he would want to play – and needs to exude a sort of delusional self-confidence. Randall played him more as a callow clown. The comic suit which Pafumi made him wear was of no help, either. (The rest of Maria Vetsch’s costumes were superb).
Aside from these minor points, Keegan’s Picasso was hilarious, touching, moving, and sweet. Pafumi has come to understand this play about as well as it can be understood. As Einstein points out, the sky is populated with billions of stars. For the next two weeks, they will be shining on the Gunston Center.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile will play at the Gunston Arts Center Theater Two Thursdays through Sundays until August 19. Sunday shows are at 2 pm; all other shows are at 8 pm. Tickets are $25 for adults and $20 for seniors and students, and may be obtained by calling 703.892.0202 ext. 2 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.