By Daniel Skora
Who better to choose for your subjects if you’re dealing with the seemingly contradictory disciplines of science and the arts than Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. They were contemporaries who reached the pinnacle of success in their respective professions during the 20th Century. The Open Book Theatre is currently presenting “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”, Steve Martin’s amusing look at what might have happened had the genius of the equation met the genius of the canvas in a Paris bar in 1904. And yes, it’s that Steve Martin, the funny guy whose act included such offbeat stuff as doing stand-up with an arrow through his head, becoming “a wild and crazy guy”, and gyrating to that wacky song about King Tut.
In 1904, neither Einstein nor Picasso had yet accomplished the work that would give them universal recognition. Picasso was several years away from his cubist masterwork, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”. Einstein had yet to publish his first paper on the theory of relativity.
Here, Einstein (Alexander Sloan), appears as a deep thinker whose logic defies that of mere mortals. He’s come to the Lapin Agile to meet a young lady whom he’s supposed to meet at a different café because she knows that he wouldn’t expect her to meet him at the prearranged place?! Picasso (Nick Yocum) is a womanizer and a celebrated artist, already self-assured to the point that he believes his talents are greater than any and all of his contemporaries.
To be sure, “Lapin Agile” is first and foremost a Steve Martin play. Picasso and Einstein become mostly props for Martin’s zany brand of humor. And as can be expected from a comedian whose comedy is mostly dry and absurd, “Lapin Agile” can be both witty and childlike. Witness the scene where a group photograph is about to be taken of those in attendance at this historic meeting of the minds. As the camera is being set up to take the picture, a robust discussion occurs as to what word when spoken aloud might give the most jovial expressions to the faces of those about to be photographed. What they come up with has become the standard for posers to this very day. Everyone say “Cheese!”
While it presupposes lofty intentions, “Lapin Agile” is rather thin on plot. Ideas and characterizations rule, and Martin suffuses his play with characters that are as interesting as his primary ones. Freddy (Joshua Brown) is the owner and bartender of the Lapin Agile. Germaine (Melissa Beckwith) is the café’s waitress and Freddy’s boyfriend. Gaston (Dennis Kleinsmith) is an elderly patron of the café whose prostate problems require frequent trips to the loo. Suzanne (Allison Megroet, who also plays two unnamed female characters) is a young woman who has come to the café in hopes of meeting Picasso, with whom she has had a prior liaison.
Sagot (Lindel Salow) is an art dealer who sells Picasso’s paintings. Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Garret Michael Harris) is a young inventor who appears only sporadically during the play’s 90 minute performance time. John DeMerell plays a visitor from the future who casts new light on the relationship between talent and fame.
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” is both imaginative and entertaining and Open Book’s production (Krista Schafer Ewbank producer) makes for an entertaining piece of theatre. Director Topher Alan Payne has assembled a talented cast, with Allison Megroet and Lindel Salow turning in especially nice performances with their characters.
The lighting (design by Harley Miah) is stellar, both literally and figuratively. Costumes (design by Cheryl Zemke) are turn-of-the-century European, with the gowns worn by Allison Megroet’s ladies demanding the most attention. Bradley Burne’s set design recreates a typical Parisian café, complete with bar, guest tables, and all those decorative touches, like bricks peeking out from plastered walls, that make an establishment inviting. Danielle Gilbert serves as the production’s stage manager and director Payne doubles as sound designer.
In the end, the takeaway from Martin’s creation as it plays out in the final scene is nothing more complicated than this: When the genius of creativity is looked at through the prism of fame and popularity, the favored end up having less to do with e=mc² and Guernica than they would with “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog”.
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” runs through March 25th. Tickets can be purchased online via credit card or by mailing a check to Open Book Theatre Company at 1621 West Road, Trenton MI 48183. Further information is available by phone at 1.734.288.7753, via email at email@example.com, or at their website at www.openbooktc.com.