Montmartre smarts: Lanny Freshman, David Hubert and Daniel Flynn in Wit’s End Players’ Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
Picasso’s 1905 painting “The Lapin Agile,” a harlequin strongly
resembling the young painter himself stands, hand on hip, at a bar.
Situated beside an impassive white-faced woman, the clown gives a
sullen sideways glance. He’s clearly on the verge of something. Perhaps
he’s about to make a discovery—or he’s contemplating a conquest. This
is the hungry young artist that comedian Steve Martin captures in his
first full-length play Picasso at the Lapin Agile, now receiving a skillful staging by Wit’s End Players at the New Times Theater at the New York State Fairgrounds.
Like Martin himself, this harlequin’s a
clown with something else on his mind. Sporting influences as diverse
as William Saroyan’s elegiac bar play The Time of Your Life, the TV sitcom Cheers, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and classic Warner Brothers cartoons, Picasso’s
gentle comedy frames a very real discussion of relationships between
art, science and life. In its serious intentions and genre-jumping
form, Picasso resembles the work of fellow former stand-up
Woody Allen. Unlike Allen, however, Martin proceeds without a trace of
cynicism. He clearly likes his characters and the human qualities they
Picasso imagines a night in 1904
at the little Montmartre bar, the Lapin Agile, the kind of place where
one might ask for “a raison d’etre with your morning coffee.” On this
particular evening, the young Picasso and Einstein are both in
attendance. Within one year, Einstein will publish his first paper on
the theory of relativity. Within three years, Picasso will change the
art world forever with “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” At this point,
however, they are charismatic geniuses in waiting.
Awaiting the arrival of Picasso is
Suzanne, an attractive young woman who feels she has shared something
special with the amorous Spaniard. In a clinch with Picasso, she
explains, “The word ‘no’ was like a Polish village: unpronounceable.”
Among the other visitors to the Lapin Agile are aging barfly Gaston and
Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, a fast-talking inventor touting an
indestructible building material made from asbestos, kitten paws and
Since its characters are solid types
anchored both in comedy stereotypes and philosophical stances, and
there is no real character development, a production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile
rises or falls by the skill of its cast. Wit’s End director David
Witanowski, however, has assembled a sturdy and sometimes inspired
ensemble. He moves the actors handily about Ian Walsh’s trim bistro
set. Walsh also handles the smoky lighting design, reminiscent of
Picasso’s Rose Period paintings, to provide a properly Parisian
If Daniel Flynn’s Einstein is a bit
callow, perhaps that’s the point. The intellectual is caught here at
age 25, a bit doughy and self-important, just as aware of his potential
as the young iconoclast artist is.
In makeup suggesting Picasso’s
distinctive dark-rimmed eyes, Nick Barbato approximates the attraction
the young Spaniard had for the young women of Paris. Quivering with
nervous energy, he’s got the magnetism down right. When Barbato speaks
as Picasso, you can’t look anywhere else.
David Hubert is a solid presence as Freddy, the
bartender-proprietor of the Lapin Agile. Exuding Gallic charm as the
reliable waitress Germaine, Kristie Grant moves with an authoritative
air and handily dispenses an earthbound wisdom. Rozlynn Jakes-Johnson
embodies the smitten Suzanne with a sensuous fluidity of movement that
suggests why women provided lifelong inspiration to Pablo Picasso.
Although Roy vanNorstrand easily brings
some needed background information as Picasso’s art dealer, the rest of
the supporting cast give this Picasso its Looney Tunes flavor.
As Gaston, Lanny Freshman melds Maurice Chevalier with a dash of Bugs
Bunny. Director Witanowski also doubles as an actor; he zaps around the
stage as the bow-tied, cocksure Schmendiman. Erin Race’s bit as a
female admirer (blink and she’s gone—in this role, at least) is a real
Toontown special. And Scott Austin brings a deadpan punch to the role
of an unexpected visitor who completes the trio of people who will
embody the changes of the 20th century.
Playing with the buzzwords of pop
culture in the early 20th-century setting, author Steve Martin
occasionally walks a tightrope between silliness and profundity. When
someone sarcastically asks, “What do you see, Einstein?” we’re
very aware of the contemporary usage. Granted, the Einstein/Picasso
encounter doesn’t always throw sparks, but in the hands of Wit’s End
Players Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a thoughtful, gently entertaining piece of theater.
This production runs through April 27. See Times Table for information.