Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso square off to both whimsical and profound effect in Picasso At The Lapin Agile, Steve Martin’s delightful theatrical soufflé now getting a splendid, star-studded revival at San Diego’s Old Globe.
Autumn leaves may be falling in Montmartre outside the turn-of-the-twen21tieth-century bistro that gives Martin’s comedy its title, but inside there’s an air of promise and hope for a future to be defined, not by governments, but by the science and art of great men like our two 20something heroes.
Albert (Justin Long) is already putting the finishing touches on his Theory Of Relativity, while Pablo (Philippe Bowgen) is just three years away from ushering in the era of cubism with his revolutionary Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
Albert hopes to reacquaint himself with an attractive redhead with whom he has recently clicked, no matter that he’s set up their rendez-vous at the Bar Rouge and he’s at the Lapin Agile. (You’d have to be Einstein to figure out his reasoning.)
Pablo, on the other hand, has no idea he’s about to run into raven-haired sexpot Suzanne (Liza Lapira), who’s none too thrilled that her two previous sexual encounters with the painter seem to have slipped his sexually overactive mind.
Observing all of the above with the wry amusement of a man who has had his fair share of liaisons is 62-year-old Gaston (Hal Linden), a formerly young Don Juan now more concerned with emptying his newly weak bladder than with romance.
Completing the cast of Lapin Agile regulars is art dealer Sagot (Ron Orbach), whose clients include both Picasso and his more famous rival Matisse, that is so long as the two artists agree never to paint either Jesus or sheep.
It soon becomes clear that Einstein and Picasso each believe his own particular gifts will be the defining ones in a century of profound change, and playwright Martin even has them fighting a duel of sorts, not with swords or pistols but with pencil and napkin, equations vs. art.
Then again, the future might belong to inventor Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Marcel Spears), who pops in briefly to reveal his latest stroke of self-proclaimed genius—a building material made of asbestos and kitten paws that can only be used in L.A. San Fran, and Tokyo.
Then again again, it might be the cult of celebrity that reigns supreme in the century ahead, that is if a blue-suede-shoes-sporting Visitor (Kevin Hafso-Koppman) is to be believed.
If it’s not already clear, Picasso At The Lapin Agile is something quite out of the ordinary, and at the same time precisely what you’d expect from a wild-and-crazy guy like Martin, though it’s not the actor-playwright’s patented whimsy that will have audiences pondering the profound while being thoroughly enchanted along the way.
Under Barry Edelstein’s inspired direction, a cast of Hollywood and Broadway luminaries shine brightly at The Old Globe, chief among them Long’s adorably wacky genius of an Einstein, Bowgen’s hilarious hunk of a Picasso, and Lapira, an absolute stunner in three very different roles.
Linden’s seasoned charmer of a Gaston, Faison’s down-to-earth Freddy, Vélez’s wisdom-dispensing Germaine, and Spears’ delicious nutcase of a Schmendiman are all absolutely terrific, and San Diego’s very own Hafso-Koppman electrifies the stage with rock-and-roll swagger fit a King.
(That nearly half of the cast is made up of actors of color deserves a pro-diversity salute.)
Scenic designer John Lee Beatty’s elegant Lapin Agile set, Katherine Roth’s gorgeous 1904 costumes, Russell H. Champa’s exquisite lighting, and Lindsay Jones’s lovely original music and crisp sound design add up to something quite gorgeous indeed, and just wait till the entire cast join voices in a bonus musical coda, David Huber serving as vocal coach.
Anjee Nero is production stage manager.
Casting is by Caparelliotis Casting. Renardo Charles Jr., Ajinkya Desai, Talley Beth Gale, Hafso-Koppman, Lorenzo Landini, and Suzelle Palacios ar understudies.
Light as la plume de votre tante and deep as the river Seine, Picasso At The Lapin Agile is that rarity among plays, one designed both to captivate with its charms and inspire deep thoughts along the way. Tout simplement, The Old Globe does two geniuses (make that three counting Steve Martin) absolutely right.
Donald And Darlene Shiley Stage, Old Globe Theatre, Balboa Park, San Diego.
February 19, 2017
Photos: Jim Cox