When Steve Martin wrote Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the 20th century was coming to a close and the play, set in 1904, was a comic invitation to retrospectively assess what the 20th century had become.
Now, more than 20 years later, the play's context is markedly different. More than a little ways into the 21st century, we are at a similar place in our history as Einstein and Picasso were in that dark Parisian bar where the play is set. What will the 21st century become? Who are the great artists and scientists who will propel it us forward? Time will tell.
In the meantime, it is good enough to wildly poke fun at ourselves in Martin's 90-minute madcap comedy now playing at Studio Players. Cleverly directed by Jenny Christian, the show feels more like an extended sketch comedy bit than a traditional play, with Martin fussing less about plot than laughs.
The play is not all laugh-driven, though. There are some deeply important ideas about the nature of art and science, particularly the mysterious leaps of imagination required to creatively propel humanity forward, woven into the fabric off the play.
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When it comes to the big ideas, Alex Maddox and Sebastian Midence are the heavy lifters as Einstein and Picasso respectively. Both adopt convincing accents as they sharply portray the twenty something, before-they-were-famous versions of the iconic pair.
At first, Einstein and Picasso are adversaries, pitting science and art against each other in a pivotal face-off. Each grabs a pencil and a bar napkin as Picasso challenges Einstein.
"Draw," he says, as if to duel, and they each share their creations. Einstein's is a formula, Picasso's a sketch.
Throughout the back-and-forth banter about the processes involved in both art and science, the two discover that their work is very similar. "Brother!" they say to one another before embracing.
Maddox and Midence deliver top-notch performances, but the remaining ensemble of quirky Parisian characters who also frequent the L'apin Agile bar are occasionally, perhaps necessarily, less developed by comparison. Part of this is due to Martin's penchant for creating flexible characters that actors can presumably fill out and customize themselves. Those characters include Carl Trammel's successfully ostentatious buffoonery as the third so-called genius in the room, Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, a part easy to imagine Martin himself playing with gusto.
It's tough to compete with Einstein's and Picasso's star power, but that also leaves the supporting ensemble a lot of freedom to explore and experiment with their characters, which would strengthen the production as a whole. The play earned plenty of laughs during the Sunday matinee I attended, and plenty from me, yet there is room for the cast to be even more robust in their choices so that the show would be the intellectual and artistic comedic gut punch that it can be.
A surprise visit from a certain blue-suede-shoe-wearing rocker (Tanner Gray) from the future injects a high dose of absurdity into the second half of the show, potentially answering the question, "Who is the third genius?" asked earlier in the play. It's certainly not Schmindeman, who thinks he is going to change the world with his invention of cheap building material made from asbestos and kitten paws. I'm not sure you can call The King a genius, but both he and Schmindeman are harbingers of things to come in the 20th century, a shift to temporary and discardable materiality and a bloated obsession with celebrity and fame.
Kudos to set designers David Bratcher and Bob Kinstle, and to lighting designer Lynda Matusek for pulling off a sparkling, late-act surprise "miracle" that is both beautiful and funny.
Looking forward, it feels as if the 21st century is filled with plenty of Schmindemans. and the skewed focus on celebrity continues to elevate the Kardashians and other folks above the great artists and thinkers of the future. Martin seems to suggest that yes, we must laugh at this absurdity, but we also must change it. And the way we do that is by making great, daring leaps of the imagination.