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CurtainUp Review
Picasso at the Lapin Agile

by Kathryn Osenlund

Jan Merrill Peakes as Picasso and Joe Schultz as Einstein

Picasso at the Lapin Agile has been kicking around for quite awhile. It has seen productions in Chicago (1993), at Harvard's American Repertory Theater (1994), LA, New York (Promenade Theater, 1995-96), and San Francisco (1998). It has attracted audiences in droves and set records as a "longest running show." It won 1996 Outer Critics Circle Awards for best play and best writer. Little known fact: The first reading of this play took place in Beverly Hills at Steve Martin's home with Tom Hanks reading Picasso and Chris Sarandon reading Einstein.)

The amazing thing to me is that the director of this production, Aaron Posner, actually saw the show at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago during its opening run in '93. Of course, the opening run did last five and a half months, which gave him time to catch it. Still, he did see it way back when and he loved it, but felt that he could improve upon certain aspects of the direction.

The Arden Theater is featuring this play in its mainstage theater space, The F. Otto Haas Stage. The set is a striking and very attractively lighted bar/cafe, representing the Lapin Agile in Paris, 1904. The bar is quite splendid for an artists' café and beautifully turned out. It certainly beats out the bar in The Weir, which played in the smaller theater at the Arden recently. Of course, while both bars are tinged with magic in a sense, this bar is possessed of a happier variety.

The story is a fantasy in which Picasso (Ian Merrill Peakes) and Einstein (Joe Schulz) and others meet in a bar before Picasso's and Einstein's larger fame sets in. Steve Martin said in '96: "It's really about how exciting it is when you're on the verge of something." What they are on the verge of is the Twentieth Century. In addition, the two main characters are both on the verge of a breakthrough -- Einstein is just about ready to submit his first paper on relativity for publication and Picasso is ready to enter his Rose Period.

The Lapin Agile depicted here doesn't have a turn of the century Parisian flavor, although its crazy, modern air could have inhabited a place frequented by futuristic thinkers and free thinking artists. It's imbued with the spirit of something new on the horizon, but a far cry from 1904 Montmartre because of its myriad winking references and humorous insights which would have been quite impossible to foresee in those days. Martin has a ball with the dialogue and he throws around a lot of funny material, both lightweight and nearly bordering on profound. The play is also about attraction, creativity, and ideas that didn't work as well as ideas that did. The self-important Schmendiman (Tony Braithwaite) demonstrates the "ideas that didn't work" category with zest. Attraction issues surface with the characters of Germaine (Kate Norris) and Suzanne (Maggie Siff). The other denizens of the bar are also well written and interestingly acted by Greg Wood as Freddy, Charles Antalosky as the inimitable Gaston, Benjamin Lloyd as Sagot, and Youssef Kerkour as the visitor. Schulz is suitably intense as Einstein, and Picasso gets supremely energetic treatment from Peakes.

This play is not really a locking of wits as one might expect. It is both less and more than that. For instance, one might anticipate an evening of intellectual dialogue between Picasso and Einstein, but the play has other ideas. No tedious and lengthy Shavian banter here.

There is an important moment of recognition where each protagonist is struck by his comprehension of what the other is saying, and they realize that they are some kind of genius soul mates beneath their respectively artistic or scientific skins. Then the play takes off in other directions, bypassing questions of genius vs talent and encompassing celebrity vs genius vs talent in a very unexpected way. Toward the end there is a nice little lesson in the relative importance of these three qualities.

Things change at the end, with the direction of the play and with the set, and it is always a pleasure to see this happen in the theatre. It is fun and the audience enjoys it. It's understandable that this play has broken attendance records. But it was a play before its time in '93. Picasso at the Lapine Agile is a perfect little play for the start of a new century.

By Steve Martin
Directed by Aaron Posner
Cast: Ian Merrill Peakes, Joe Schulz, Kate Norris, Maggie Siff, Charles Antalosky, Greg Wood, Tony Braithwaite, Benjamin Lloyd, Youssef Kerkour
Scenic Design: Bob Phillips
Lighting Design: Drew Billiau
Costume Design: Marla Jurglanis
Sound Design: Eileen Smitheimer

Dramaturg: Arden Thomas
Running time1 1/2 hours with no intermission
03/01/2001-04/01/2001;< opening 03/06/2001

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 03/06 performance


2001 CD-ROM Deluxe

The Broadway Theatre Archive

(C)Copyright 2001, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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