We tend to think of genius as fully formed. We see the end results of a truly sublime or original masterpiece – be it a play, a painting, or a theorem – and chalk it up to divine inspiration that the mere mortals among us could not hope to grasp.
One of the many pleasures of Picasso at the Lapine Agile, now playing at the charmingly cozy Keegan Theatre in Dupont Circle, is allowing us a glimpse into the earlier years of two true geniuses – Pablo Picasso (Matthew Keenan) and Albert Einstein (Bradley Foster Smith). Both men are depicted whittling away an evening in a sleepy Paris bar circa 1903, where they regale a Greek chorus of regulars with their outsized ambitions and grandiose plans for defining the contours of the 20th century.
Both men are on the precipice of their major breakthroughs – cubism and the theory of relativity. Einstein is still toiling away in a patent office by day; Picasso is still a bit “nuts about blue”, as a barstool critic notes caustically. As close as they are to their tipping points of insight, the pair still grapple with insecurities familiar to less celebrated twenty-five year olds: romance, finances, and whether or not anyone ultimately gives a damn about the work at all.
The script was penned by Steve Martin, presumably familiar with the burdens of genius in his field of comedy. The play is indeed vintage Martin – you can practically hear the strains of his trademark banjo underlining the gags. The story has a lot of fun breaking the fourth wall (with one character directly referring to an audience member’s program to settle a dispute at one point) and introducing another unlikely genius late in the show from the latter half of the century.
This is not My Dinner with Andre – the bar is populated with an endearing cast of characters, including a seen-it-all bartender (Brandon McCoy), a jilted lover (Amanda Forstrom), and the requisite elderly Frenchman with a mind preoccupied only by sex and booze (Kevin Adams). The ensemble makes for a lively coterie, quick to pour cold water on the pretensions and wild visions of the leads. They remind us that it is not very easy to spot genius in our own midst or in our own time, especially in the form of rumpled bar flies.
The play has a lot to say about the nature of creative inspiration and the parallels between science and the arts, while always maintaining a zany undertone of absurdity. There are a lot of sly hints that attempting to envision the future is largely a fool’s errand – though the bartender is the one who nails it when he posits that, “in the twentieth century, no political movement will be as glorious as the movement of the line across the paper, the note across the staff, or the idea across the mind.”
The impressive cast tackle their roles with gusto, with Smith as the stand-out, playfully poking at our notions of what the iconic scientist would be like to have a drink with (at one point rumpling his hair and sticking out his tongue to more closely resemble the posters plastered on countless dorm room walls).
Special recognition should also be paid to the production and lighting design of Ryan Smith and Patrick Lord (along with their teams), which projects evocative and haunting visions of the century to come into the backdrop – including visualizations of the art and science that ultimately would shape the world we live in today.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin . Directed by Chris Stezin . Assistant Director: Sheri Herren. Cast: Matthew Keenan, Bradley Foster Smith, Brandon McCoy, Allison Leigh Corke, Amanda Forstrom, Kevin Adams, lee Liebeskind, Michael Innocenti, Sheri Herren, Jessica Power, Katie Rosenberg, Caroline Leffert, Michael Kozemchak . Costume Designer: Erin Nugent . Set Designer: Matthew Keenan . Lighting Designer: Ryan Smith . Sound Designer: Tony Angelini . Production Designer: Patrick Lord. Properties Designer and Set Dresser: Carol Baker . Hair and Makeup Designer: Craig Miller. Stage Manager: Juliana Parks. Assistant State Managers: Katie Rosenberg, Caroline Leffert . Produced by Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Daron Christopher.
Review by Daron Christopher.