KPBS AIRDATE: MAY 17, 1999
How much politics and philosophy do you like stirred into your comedy? If you prefer your humor straight up, without a twist… curl up with a frozen sitcom. But if you like to be shaken — and stirred — imbibe this: the San Diego Rep’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” and “Strange Bedfellows” at the Fritz. Either one could leave you tipsy.
Steve Martin, that wild and crazy guy formerly known as the idiot with the arrow through his head, made his playwriting debut in 1993 by dreaming up a fantasy meeting between two genuinely wild and crazy guys: Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein. He set what he called his “serious comedy” in a small, bohemian bistro, the Lapin Agile (translation: nimble rabbit), which was, in fact, frequented by Picasso. When the play premiered Off Broadway, it won the New York Outer Critics Circle Awards for Best Play and Best Playwright.
The clever, often provocative piece is set in 1904, one year before the publication of Einstein’s “Theory of Relativity” and three years before Picasso’s groundbreaking “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” These two 20-something wunderkinder, full of promise, ideas and themselves, meet to boast, compare creativity and compete for the Most Influential Award. Big Issues butt up against one-liners, as Martin combines art and physics with generous doses of verbal and physical humor. He seems to be a little frightened of heavy discourse; just as he gets to a really core issue, he bobs and weaves and lapses into hopeless silliness. But what can we expect? This isn’t Chekhov; it’s Steve Martin, for God’s sake.
He’s takes a sweeping, if not a deep, look at the 20th century, making some timeless observations about men, women, and the most critical contributions to 20th century society. Ultimately, the play poses the intriguing question: Which domain will have had the greatest effect on our lives over the course of this mend-bending 100 years? Art? Science? Commerce? Or celebrity?
Martin does great with the first three, in the fascinating characters of the womanizing braggadocio Picasso, the bumbling professor Einstein, and the whimsically imagined Schmendiman, self-promoting inventor extraordinaire. But then, he throws in a less-than-amusing red herring, a time-traveling mystery guest. Convention dictates that I not ruin the surprise, but it sure doesn’t work for me – neither on the page, nor here onstage… where the portrayal is a great deal less than stellar, all the spotlight and starlight having been stolen by Picasso, in Mikael Salazar’s irresistibly seductive performance. As Picasso’s creative counterpart, Ron Campbell makes for a hilarious, though nearly buffoonish Einstein, with his stand-up hair and impeccably absent-minded physical comedy.
Joan Schirle, director of the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre, has cast with confidence and underscored all the pratfalls and wordplay the script demands. Especially effective are Jonathan McMurtry as a jaded roué with a weak bladder, Deborah van Valkenburgh as a worldly-wise wench, and Michael Douglas Hummel as the ebullient, self-aggrandizer Schmendiman. The set looks more garish than bohemian, but the costumes are priceless. The play itself is flawed, and the production isn’t flawless either, but both are damn good. You gotta love a comedy that mixes the high-minded with the low-brow, in what the director calls a ‘vaudeville of the mind.’ As the character Gaston puts it, ‘You take a couple of geniuses, put them in a room together, & wow.’
Now, if you like a play of ideas, hop on over to the Fritz, which has hatched a humorous, well-wrought production of three comical-political mini-plays by local actor/writer/director Tim West, who, in the vein of Steve Martin, is ignited by the ironic ‘What if’? What if FDR could walk? What if the Republicans chose their presidential candidate in a game of back-room charades? And what if the intelligence community… isn’t? Director Chris Wylie and his funny-bunny cast have all the skill, speed and agility of… a nimble rabbit.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.