It would be easy for a comedian to write one gag after another based on the premise “So Einstein and Picasso walk into a bar…” but Steve Martin, in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” manages to go beyond easy laughs and historical gimmicks. Don’t get us wrong – he has those too (even a ‘why did the chicken cross the road?’ joke) – but the play is a surprisingly philosophical commentary on the nature of genius and inspiration. It’s essentially a sketch comedy act written by your philosophy TA. The cute French one.
The play is set in a smoky Parisian bar, the Lapin Agile (“Nimble Rabbit”), in the autumn of 1904. It’s the year before Einstein will publish his special theory of relativity, and three years before Picasso will paint his masterpiece “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.” Amidst lusty French bar-maids and other colorful patrons, Steve Martin imagines a meeting of the two great minds. Soon after they are introduced, Albert and Pablo go to head to head in a Western-style duel, packing pencils instead of pistols. One draws a formula, while the other produces a sketch, but emerges as the contest’s winner. Instead, a lively debate on the value of science, art, and creativity ensues – and it continues for 90 minutes, as characters weave in and out, contributing insights or wisecracks.
The elegance of the play is that Martin is not overly ambitious in the world he constructs. Essentially, the action takes place within one setting – a bar – and the plot is driven by the dialogue. There are a few romantic tangents and allusions to events past and future, but Martin holds the audience’s attention almost entirely with witty banter and a few surprises.
The 9-person ensemble has good chemistry – you get the sense they would be the regulars at the Lapin, sipping absinthe and fraternizing with Montmartre’s artistic milieu. They’re all attractive and well-dressed, thanks to Sofija Canavan, who designed the play’s eleven period-appropriate looks. Canavan took inspiration from various Picasso paintings, she said, drawing on his choices of colors and his use of texture to outfit the cast. (SPOILER ALERT: She bought Knowles’s blue suede shoes on Ebay.)
“She’s really hardcore. She insisted I do a Windsor knot for my 3-minute cameo,” said Hunter Wolk ’12.
At its low points, the play can feel like a succession of gratuitous cabaret-style jokes (“Premature ejaculation?” one character asks; another deadpans, “Is there any other kind?”). Furthermore, from time to time, certain characters feel one-dimensional, like a distillation of a single personality trait. Picasso, for example, comes off as a womanizer more than a multi-faceted artist, and Einstein occasionally teeters towards the cartoon, absent-minded professor. But thankfully, these moments are few and far between, owing to the actors’ organic portrayals and the direction of Matthew McCollum ’12.
In some ways, the play has been a long time coming for McCollum, who saw a production of it when he was 14 in Las Vegas. “It really got to me,” he said, explaining how he picked it up recently and remembered how funny it was. But the humor wasn’t the only reason the play appealed to him. McCollum said he thinks its “universal ideas” will resonate with the Yale audience. scene agrees.
The most unexpected plot twist comes in the form of Michael Knowles ’12, a time-traveling, swaggering crooner from the future. As an unnamed rockstar wearing blue suede shoes and proclaiming “I’m just a country boy,” Knowles exudes charisma and animal magnetism. He lights up the play’s second half and keeps the audience on their toes. Although his appearance demands the play’s largest suspension of disbelief, the characters express just the right of bewilderment at his appearance: enough to preserve the play’s integrity without it taking itself too seriously.
So if you missed some Masters’ Teas this week and feel you haven’t gotten your fair share of genius, forgo tea for a glass of rosé with three of the century’s greatest artists and thinkers in the Calhoun Cabaret. Actual drinks not included.