Thursday, July 15, 2010

picasso at the lapin agile

Here's my latest review for the Post.

Full text below, but additionally here's a couple of quotations I started with but didn't have room to run with the story. I often search for quotations on whatever the general themes seem to be when I'm reviewing a play, and slap them at the top of the piece to glance at as I write. Anyone else do that?

Enjoy, and comments welcome.

Although they will immediately be disregarded. :)

“I want to be ready for it, to be ready for the moment of convergence between the thing done and the doing of that moment, I am speaking for everyone; I am dreaming for the billions yet to come.”
-- Steve Martin, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"

"The function of genius is not to give new answers, but to pose new questions - which time and mediocrity can solve."
-- Hugh Trevor-Roper

“To think, and to feel, constitute the two grand divisions of men of genius--the men of reasoning and the men of imagination.”
--Isaac D’Israeli

“Real recognize real.” --MF Doom


The word “genius” gets tossed around a lot. A thoroughly unscientific search of recent headlines turned up the word in reference to Billy Bob Thornton, Adolph Hitler, Michael Jackson and Argentine soccer coach Maradona.

If nothing else, such a group would make for an interesting dinner party.

Putting aside the strong possibility that the word has been cheapened by overuse, genius seems to imply a sort of magic or alchemy, a connection to something outside of oneself, a great leap forward as inexplicable as it is miraculous.

By any definition, the genius guest list should include Steve Martin, polymath and author of 1996’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.” As a stand-up comedy writer and performer, he routinely made great leaps, nimbly dancing in the gray area between the silly and the sublime. “Picasso,” his first full-length play, does the same.

Veteran director Terry Dodd has treated the piece with the joy and respect it deserves. Martin imagines a 1904 meeting between a young Albert Einstein (Brian Kusic) and Pablo Picasso (Ben Cowhick) at a Paris bar, the two men consumed with passion for their respective subjects of interest.

The dawn of the 20th century is a perfect laboratory for Martin’s thought experiment, a time when it must have seemed like new wonders of art, science, and industry were emerging every day. That innocence, that wide-eyed wonderment at the world and human achievement in it is written into the characters as well as the show as a whole.

Martin immediately has some fun with Einstein as he introduces himself to bar-owner Freddy (Larry Hecht) and incontinent customer Gaston (James Nantz). When Freddy declares that he can’t be Einstein, the theorist mutters, “I’m not myself today.” Then he fluffs up his hair to resemble the famous wild hairdo from a million dorm room posters and asks, “Better?”

Suzanne, a young woman joins them (the lovely and elegant Z. Z. Moore), tells of a tryst with Picasso, and waits in hope of seeing him again. When he shows, Picasso has naturally forgotten her, and in a hilarious sequence he tries to pick her up again using the same techniques Suzanne has just described.

But the majority of the show features Picasso and Einstein metaphorically circling one another, verbal knives out: the flamboyant, womanizing artiste and the seemingly meek patent office clerk, each on the brink of creating his masterpiece. Over the course of the lightning-fast 90 minutes, they come to recognize that ultimately, genius is the same creature, no matter how divergent the fields of study in which it is accessed.

The two leads are well-matched and mostly equal to the task of playing their larger-than-life characters. As the great painter, Ben Cowhick has a bit of work to do in terms of fully, truthfully inhabiting Picasso’s brash swagger, but he isn’t far off the mark. Brian Kusic as Einstein has mastered a sly, layered meekness that barely covers the theorist’s own tremendous ego and confidence.

As the combative Germaine, Laura Lounge can come off a little one-note at times, but she has a lovely moment late in the play when she reveals her own philosophy. Larry Hecht as the deadpan, sardonic bartender Freddy anchors the cast, much like the bar itself built into the lobby of the Barth Hotel.

Two minor points about the Barth: while it is a beautiful building, using the lobby’s regular lighting does detract from the magical nature of the show, especially one as otherworldly as this. Also, the acoustics of the place ensure that if the actors don’t make a point of holding for laughs, lines will get swallowed up in the echo.

While the glib, 21st century thing to do would be to smugly dismiss “Picasso” as a comedian’s pack of one-liners tenuously built on the shifting sands of absurdity, the truth is that there is a great deal of truth here. In exploring where inspiration comes from, author Martin, director Dodd and his cast also serve to inspire.

ADDENDUM: And according to I Write Like, based on this review, I write like H.P. Lovecraft.

Huh. And I didn't even mention Cthulu once...

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