The warm wood tones of a well-worn bar greet the audience entering the St. Louis University Theatre. If the program didn't tell us that Picasso at the Lapin Agile takes place in Paris in 1904, we might think we were going to see an episode of Cheers. The opening characters, a friendly bartender and his joking regular customer, have their usual banter interrupted by an unexpected guest: a young Albert Einstein. From this point on, anything goes -- from jumping into the audience to check details in the program to set pieces that mysteriously disappear. The bar becomes a backdrop for a range of zany characters and zippy one-liners delivered by a strong ensemble of St. Louis University students.
Starting with a comic "what if," Steve Martin's play asks: "If Picasso and Einstein had met before either of them were famous, what would they have talked about?" The initial answer is: women. Einstein, played with perfect wide-eyed earnestness by James Malone, comes to the bar expecting to meet a female friend. In his own version of the theory of relativity, he concludes that even though he's supposed to meet this woman at another bar, there is just as much likelihood of her entering the Lapin Agile as there is of her entering the bar where they arranged to meet. (Happily for him, his theory proves true.) We learn of Picasso's adept seduction techniques from Suzanne, played with spark and the right touch of naiveté by Heather Wood. Her captivating description of her sexual encounters with the passionate and unpredictable artist pay off in a touching moment of conflict when Picasso (a swaggering Jason Garrison) enters and doesn't recognize her.
Women aside, however, Einstein and Picasso find a shared bond in the excitement of creation. While they argue over whether art or science is better -- Picasso chants that his ideas appeal to the heart, while Einstein champions the ideas that appeal to the mind -- they agree that the sublime moment of clarity that births their work is the most precious gift of all.
Directed by Tom Martin, the production moves quickly through a broad range of comic subjects: premature ejaculation ("Is there any other kind?" wonders barmaid Germaine), pink lawn flamingos and the humorous nature of the lowercase letter "e." It's hard not to hear Steve Martin's voice in every moment of Picasso at the Lapin Agile -- and that's both good and bad. Martin's wry delivery is difficult for any mere human to match, so any time a joke falls flat the audience is bound to think, "If Steve Martin had said that, it would have been funny." But parts of the play aren't funny, and that has nothing to do with delivery or timing. Martin wrote this at the end of the twentieth century, looking wistfully back on our potential achievements and ultimately naming it "the century of regret." It's hard to take the moments of seriousness seriously, and it's unfortunate (although perhaps not surprising) that a writer with such a light comic touch has such a heavy hand when it comes to drama.
Fortunately the weighty moments are few, and the cast keeps the energy high and the dialogue crisp. The actors are aided by a lusciously large multilevel set designed by Courtney Zanazaro and well lighted by Mark Wilson. Gregory J. Horton created an almost indescribably handsome long purplish-plum coat for the ebullient Einstein and eye-popping layers of stripes and plaids in the skirts worn by Suzanne.
Building on the unpredictability promised in the play's beginning, Martin continues to introduce unexpected and hilarious guests to the bar. After realizing that Einstein and Picasso are on the verge of changing the world, bar regular Gaston wonders, since things always come in threes, who will be the third amazing innovator. Enter Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, played with catlike grace by Kevin Grooms. His disastrously unsuccessful ideas build to a final moment of unexpected triumph during a group photograph. An unexpected visitor from the future takes the show to cosmic levels, and the play ends with a mind-boggling toast to the twentieth century that is sweetly satisfying.
In spite of a few unnecessary philosophical side-trips, Picasso at the Lapin Agile ultimately manages to find connections between characters and audience that are genuine. Picasso and Einstein probably never met in their seminal years, but Martin's exploration of the collision and collusion between science and art provides a thoughtful, theatrical and funny evening.
And it has my favorite closing line of any play, ever.