'Picasso' Probes Genius, Gets Laughs
PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE by Steve Martin Starring Mark Nelson and Paul Provenza At the Shubert Theatre Through October 26
Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin), currently playing at the Shubert Theatre, is an enjoyable if somewhat slight affair. It mixes laughs with more serious themes, and while this melange of the silly and the sober can sometimes seem forced, on the whole it succeeds admirably in keeping the audience engrossed--making its running time of 90 minutes seem barely 30.
Picasso plays with the conceit of an imaginary meeting between Albert Einstein (Mark Nelson) and Pablo Picasso (Paul Provenza) in a Parisian bistro right at the turn of the century. Both men are in their early twenties, and each one is on the verge of his greatest accomplishments. During the course of the evening, the two men argue, duel, exchange ideas and learn a thing or two from the other. Martin keeps the surprises coming, and any who see the play may rest assured that they will be delighted at the special "guest" he introduces near the end.
Fans of Martin's own particular brand of humor in his T.V. and movie roles will feel right at home here, since the tone and style of humor in Picasso match that of Martin's film roles. As a comic playwright, Martin uses many, if not most of the tricks in the book, including characters' conversing with the audience and openly referring to the play they're in, and ample use of smoke and explosions.
Martin has always had a keen eye for human foibles, and he expands his considerable talent here in creating a very broad, if occasionally cliched cast of characters. As might be expected, clever retorts fly, the dialogue crackles and some characters come across as just plain silly. Jokes are set up in the beginning of the play, and recur later on, in different contexts, to great effect. The comic material Martin uses in Picasso succeeds in racking up the laughs, although it lacks the slight edge that elevated the best of his earlier into something more provocative and exciting. Still, Martin is no comic slouch, and there's never a dull moment during his play.
Martin also gamely tries to add depth to Picasso by exploring such universal themes as love, inspiration and the beauty of science. Unfortunately, sometimes the shift from the ridiculous to the sublime can be jarring, as the play occasionally moves from absurd humor to would-be-profound statements in a single line, interrupting the flow of the play. Several times, a string of non-stop jokes is followed by a crisis of realization which feels strained and unnatural. Martin, does, however, make some good points, and his effort to address more thought-provoking issues does broaden the scope of the play.
Nelson and Provenza are well suited to their respective roles as Einstein and Picasso, although Nelson seems somewhat more at ease with his role. Provenza's portrayal of Picasso falls prey to exaggerated gestures and stereotypically "Spanish" posturing that result in a performance which feels contrived--although this may be just the point. Nelson gets the best lines, and uses them to great effect in creating a surprisingly vibrant and convincing young Einstein. The rest of the supporting cast--including a bartender, a waitress and an art dealer--do a highly credible job of fleshing out their characters. The set design and the costumes are simple and elegant, employing bright colors and easy-to-see props.
In the end, the overarching theme of the play seems to be the not-exactly-earthshaking idea that inspiration lies behind great discoveries, and that inspiration is the same for scientists and artists. While it might be argued that Martin suggests Einstein's work influenced Picasso's and vice versa, the play is more concerned with entertaining the audience than delving into any more cerebral speculations. Martin is a natural entertainer, and he knows how to hold an audience--which proves his greatest asset here. Picasso at the Lapin Agile is ultimately a lighthearted discourse on a broad range of topics, but above all, it's a lot of fun.