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Issue date: September 20, 2000

Theater review: Steve Martin play is clever but not much of a story Theater review: Steve Martin play is clever but not much of a story (September 20, 2000)

By Bryan Wiggin

Almanac Theater Critic

Palo Alto Players has opened its 70th season with Steve Martin's play, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile." The play is funny, clever, entertaining, and vaguely dissatisfying. It is also brief, which it has to be, because it has very little in the way of story or plot, and an abundance of nothing more than clever talk becomes tedious.

Set in 1904, at a bar in Paris, the play brings together Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, and several lesser lights. (Compared with them, most lights are.) These two men were two of the creators of the 20th century, and playwright Martin uses our knowledge of this fact to drive his play.

Einstein (Steve Cortopassi) arrives first, saying he is to meet a woman at the Bar Rouge. When the bartender, Freddy (Doug Brook), tells him this is not the Bar Rouge, Einstein says it's equally improbable that she will come into this bar as that one, so it doesn't matter. It's all relative, or something like that, and we get the joke without having to understand the theory.

Picasso (Brandon Brown) is preceded by Suzanne (Sara Betts), who has already been wooed and wowed by the young genius. When the painter finally arrives, his manner is like that of a music hall comedian. He slides about the stage, making observations about art and women. Indeed, all the characters in the play are full of opinions and observations, most of them interesting, many of them funny. And there was a good deal of laughter at the opening night performance.

But there isn't much of a heart in this play, and all of its cleverness feels a bit tinny and contrived. This is especially apparent when everyone goes into a fit of predicting the future. They do this with complete accuracy but with verbal distortion. For example, we are told that the city of Hiroshima will be completely redesigned. Funny, yes, but maybe too facile.

The final moments of the play are, however, quite beautiful. A visitor from the future (Christopher McCullough), wearing blue suede shoes, conjures Picasso's famous painting "Les demoiselles d'Avignon," which will be created three years later, above the bar. And then the walls of the building disappear and the painting is luminous in a night sky filled with stars. This marvelous image really does suggest the leaping imagination of creative genius that Picasso and Einstein would use to change our perception of this world and beyond.

The play ends quite arbitrarily, as it must, since there is no story that can come to an end. I'd be churlish to say it's not enjoyable, but, except for that evocative image of painting and stars -- the provinces of Picasso and Einstein -- clever is the best that it is.

Director Vickie Rozell has done excellent work with her cast, which also includes Lisa Wiseman, Henry J. Sellenthin, Brian James, and Zane Allen. Everything moves smoothly, and everyone inhabits as much character as the script provides them. This is good ensemble acting. And the scenic and lighting design of Michael Palumbo, notably the effect praised above, are impressive.

In sum, you may not be moved by "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" (which means Nimble Rabbit, by the way), but you will be intelligently entertained. And that's a relatively good deal.

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile," by Steve Martin, is being presented by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through October 1. For information, call 329-0891.


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