note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Caroline Burlingham Ellis
(Article first appeared in the Wayland Town Crier)
In 1994, comedian Steve Martin wrote a farce imagining that Picasso and Einstein met in a Parisian bar in 1904, before either was famous. Martin invented vaudevillian arguments about art, the nonlinear nature of time and the lure of the opposite sex. Now a new production of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” is running at Vokes, to sporadically hilarious effect.
Martin’s touch is surest in broad comedy. When he reaches for deeper meaning, he is boring. The sparkle of the Vokes production comes mainly from two smaller roles: Bob Williams’ take on Charles Dabernow Schmendiman is one. The audience hated to see Williams leave the stage. Schmendiman rants that commerce is longer lasting than the art and science that Picasso and Einstein embody. He brags about his invention of a brittle, inflexible building material for earthquake-prone San Francisco’s skyscrapers, Schmendimite, which he says is made from kittens’ paws, asbestos and radium. Commercial innovation, unlike work by Picasso or Einstein at that time, was generating wealth.
Grant Wood is another highlight. He plays a mysterious time-traveling visitor wafted in on the portentous theme from “2001.” He represents a kind of art that is surprisingly lucrative, but may be only the art of self-promotion.
What makes Wood’s and Williams’ roles especially funny? As Martin says, humor is different for different people. To some in the audience, there is nothing inherently brilliant about lines. It is the two actors’ paradoxically over-the-top but controlled delivery of the lines that works -- not easy in a Steve Martin creation, where it is easy to descend into mere hamming.
The other members of the cast each have delightful moments. However, director James Barton might have encouraged them to develop a bit of an accent or at least pronounce Lapin Agile correctly. In any case, they have their work cut out for them. Whenever the playwright feels compelled to show off his education and deep thoughts, the pace stalls.
In a wonderfully evocative set designed by D Schweppe (how do those Vokes people make that tiny stage look so spacious?), bartender Freddy (John Greiner-Ferris) and his charming girlfriend, Germaine (Milena Zuccotti), host a motley crew. Old Gaston (Robert Zawistowski) has a bladder problem. Albert Einstein (Ari Vigoda), always working on his theory of relativity, is waiting for a woman he told to go to a different bar at a different time (because it’s all relative and she’s bound to show up). Suzanne (Jennifer Kaufmann) is waiting for Picasso after a torrid one-night stand. Sagot, Picasso’s art dealer (Michael Barbo) is bombastic about the filthy-lucre side of art. Last but not least is the walking testosterone experiment otherwise known as Picasso (Michael Diminico). Audience members get involved, too, a feature of Martin’s arch style.
When Martin first produced his play at the Hasty Pudding in Cambridge, struggling unknown playwrights had mixed feelings. On the one hand, good for him to show that there was more to him than slapstick acting! On the other hand, how many noncelebrity playwrights, with perhaps more to say, are guaranteed an audience?
The edge given celebrities sometimes causes bitterness. For example, the Actors Theatre of Louisville has long offered a prize for the best new play. Imagine how playwrights felt when the organization decided the secret to saving theater (always on its last legs) was to solicit ten-minute plays from established writers in other fields -- for example, novelist Joyce Carol Oates. Ultimately, however, it is rare for a celebrity play to have the longevity of a Picasso painting or the theory of relativity. And if people pack a theater to see a piece of fluff because it has, say, Richard Dreyfuss in it, their enjoyment often boosts fund-raising for the arts.
As for “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” the moments of pure fun are worth the trip. Most likely the pace and smoothness of overall delivery will pick up.
The comedy was produced by Tara Stepanian. Betsy Burr designed the lighting, Molly Trainer the great period costumes, and John Chiachiaretta the sound effects and background music.
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” runs through March 27. For further information, call (508) 358-4034.