Chicago Theatre Review
A Scientist and an Artist Walk Into a Bar…
Picasso at the Lapin Agile – Organic Theater Company
One evening in 1904 a young Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and a mysterious Visitor from the Future meet by chance at the Lapin Agile (the Nimble Rabbit) in bohemian Montmartre, Paris. There they exchange views about science, art and sex. Filled with a mixture of unexpected one-liners, Steve Martin’s surrealistic 1993 one-act comedy, which had its premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, went on to play in Los Angeles and New York. It’s a mixture of insightful theories, bawdy humor, quirky characters and a contemplation of the relationship between art and science.
Although Steve Martin is primarily known for his successful career as a standup comedian and film actor, he’s also an accomplished musician and writer, having penned several screenplays, novels, children’s books and collections of essays. This was Martin’s first play, however he went on to write “The Underpants,” another comedy also set in Paris.
Rather than telling a story, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” plays more like a 90-minute debate about talent versus genius within the arts and sciences. It’s populated by a cast of bizarre, unconventional characters whose purpose is mainly to serve a specific function in this discussion. They toss around bon mots of inspiration and comedy, while providing opinions about painting and physics. Freddy, the simple-minded barkeep of the Lapin Agile, keeps his customers’ glasses filled, with the able assistance of Germaine, his beautiful girlfriend and waitress. While now and then Freddy comes up with a pithy observation, Germaine seems the more intelligent and thoughtful of the two. Gaston, an elderly bar regular, takes advantage of his advanced years by saying whatever comes to mind. He’s also afflicted by a condition causing him to make frequent visits to the washroom.
A few new customers visit the Lapin Agile on this October evening. The first is 25-year-old Albert Einstein, an ebullient, likable, scientific genius with a huge passion for life. He’s on the cusp of publishing his soon-to-be famous The Special Theory of Relativity. Often, throughout the play, this affable young man, bursting with wisdom and an enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge, finds he must simplify everything for his comrades. Eventually he’s joined by an equally impetuous Pablo Picasso, a talented 23-year-old painter, overflowing with ego and sexuality. This womanizing young man ultimately finds himself going head to head with Einstein in a debate about their individual crafts.
They’re joined by a self-acknowledged genius and inventor named Charles Schmendiman, a gutsy, outspoken dilettante whose pompous attitude toward the real intellects in the bar is quite funny. In addition, an art dealer named Sagot, whose boundless fervor for collecting great paintings, drops by the bar for a drink. As the evening wears on, a surprise visitor in blue suede shoes enters the establishment. He’s traveled all the way from the 20th century to pay a call on these characters. While he never offers his name, the audience recognizes that the enigmatic American with the Southern drawl is none other than Elvis Presley. He’s arrived to provide yet one more viewpoint about artistic talent.
The bar is also frequented by several women. Suzanne, a teenager who is romantically obsessed with Picasso, is disappointed to find that the painter doesn’t even remember their night together. A lovely woman called The Countess arrives for a rendezvous with Einstein. She’s perhaps the one person who truly understands this man of science. Another nameless young girl arrives, who Picasso assumes to be one of his adoring public; but she’s actually interested in Schmendiman, instead. Throughout the evening people come and go and drinks flow as freely as the conversation.
Josh Anderson’s production, while entertaining, never really makes the leap to something magnificent or memorable. Several members of the cast, most notably Sean Thomas as a feisty Gaston, Philena Gilmer as saucy Suzanne and other women, Will Burdin as an effervescent Schmendiman and, particularly, the amiable, energetic Joel Moses, as a captivating Einstein, transcend the production with their standout performances. Terrence McClellan’s set is serviceable and the costumes by Angela Enos nicely create a period look. Otherwise, this production of Martin’s absurdist comedy, while competent and somewhat humorous, especially for those unfamiliar with the play, lacks the magic and all-encompassing energy it deserves.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
May 21-June 26 by the Organic Theater Company in the Upstairs Mainstage at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the Box Office at 773-404-7336 or by going to www.organictheater.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.