Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, January 1999
At one point in "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" author Steve Martin,(yes, that Steve Martin) has a minor character admonish Picasso and Einstein saying something to the effect of, "You must watch your words very carefully, or they will turn on you like naughty children." That is exactly what has happened to Martin. This his first successful playscript, and he can be allowed a certain amount of leeway for learning, but too often he goes for an easy gag just when his material is about to hit a higher plain of comedy.
Town Players are giving Martin's relatively amateur play a decidedly amateur production down at BCC. Director John Trainor has seated the audience on stage in a three-quarters round arrangement, and then failed to stage the play for three-quarters round. Arriving a few minutes late due to icy roads, I sat on the side with two-thirds of the audience, rather than in my choice critic's seat with the privileged one-third front and center, and I spent a great deal of time studying the actors' backs. And despite the intimate setting, all of the actors were hard to hear, as if they thought the audience was so close they didn't need to project, or at least not to the sides.
"Picasso" is set in Paris in 1904 and concerns an imaginary meeting of the young Pable Picasso and Albert Einstein. Nothing on the stage reminded me of Paris or 1904. James Fredenberg reminded me slightly of Einstein, but Scott Moran did not look or feel like a young Picasso to me. I could not help feeling that I would have found Martin's script funnier and understood it better if I could have seen the anachronism of Paris in 1904 being invaded by the future.
The show runs under 90 minutes with no intermission, and that is barely enough time for two such interesting fellows as Picasso and Einstein to work up a good head of steam. Martin makes the mistake of adding in nine other characters and letting their words run away with them. Picasso doesn't make his entrance until halfway through the play, during which time peripheral characters talk a great deal about him. And Elvis doesn't come in until the bitter end.
A great deal of hype attends the unveiling of Elvis Presley as the third monumental figure of the 20th century. I was so hoping for Adolf Hitler and then I got Elvis. While Picasso, Einstein and Elvis altered their respective crafts profoundly, Hitler was the individual who shaped this century. In 1904 Einstein would have been 25, Picasso 23, and Hitler 15. Now there's an imaginary meeting of famous folks for you! If Einstein and Hitler were acquainted, would Hitler have gotten the bomb first? Or would Einstein and Picasso's pacifist and artistic temperaments have had a profound impact on the teenage Hitler and changed the course of this century in ways we can only imagine? There is a play with for you!
But I have come not to re-write Martin but to appraise him. The play he has written is a light piece of fluff with some really good ideas peeking out through the mounds of schtick. Town Players are offering it as something light and funny for a cold winter's night. It is, literally, the only show in town. Like eating an occasional Hostess Twinkie - it won't hurt you.
"Picasso at the Lapin Agile" presented by the Town Players of Pittsfield runs Friday and Saturday, January 22 and 23 at the Robert Boland Theatre in the Koussevitsky Arts Center on the BCC Campus, 1305 West Street, Pittsfield. Curtain is at 8 PM both nights. Call 413-443-9279 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999