Polymathic comedian Steve Martin’s play Picasso at the Lapin Agile might best be described as a love letter to creativity and to the creative energies that birthed both the joys and the horrors of the twentieth century. The conceit of the play is a chance meeting at a Parisian café, the Lapin Agile (“Nimble Rabbit”), in 1904 between Albert Einstein (Steve Gottschalk) and Pablo Picasso (Nico Bernstein), both at the time in their twenties. The main action of the play is debate – Einstein and Picasso converse and argue about what constitutes talent, genius, and creativity, and whether art or science will be more valuable or useful to the coming century. Hindsight tells us, of course, that both of these men will introduce revolutionary innovations, and in the end the play celebrates the joys, pleasures, and importance of creative energy to both the individual and society.
Other characters in the play revolve around these two geniuses – there is the café owner, Freddy (here cross-cast as a woman, Jenine Peirce), who is rather simple, but who occasionally has a brilliant insight; her girlfriend Germaine (Lee Lytle), a waitress at the café who is also having an affair with Picasso; Gaston (Patrick Connor), an elderly patron with a tiny bladder and an obsession with sex; Suzanne (Hannah Brizzi), a Picasso-groupie who gets upset when he forgets that he slept with her; Sagot (Samantha A. Camp), a savvy art dealer; Schmendiman (Chris Duvall), an American with a lot of silly get-rich-quick ideas; the Countess (Sarah McPartland), Einstein’s girlfriend; and a time-traveling Visitor in blue suede shoes (guess who?), played with a Tennessee drawl by Stephen Ray.
Squint a bit and it’s not hard to imagine many of these characters having been cleaved off of characters Martin has successfully played himself in his long film career, in particular Gaston and Freddy – who both have something of Inspector Clouseau’s “idiot savant” vibe – and Schmendiman – whose wide-eyed belief in his own ability to sell a crazy invention evokes the sheet music salesman in Pennies from Heaven.
Strong performances by Bernstein and Gottschalk anchored the play’s central debate, and the Throughline Theatre Company production, directed by Daniel Freeman, garnered a lot of laughs, particularly from the many metatheatrical references sprinkled throughout the play. The simple set (Rob Hockenberry) served the needs of the production well, and lighting designer Paige Borak and sound designer Shannon Knapp brought in special effects that elevated the action out of its naturalistic setting as the play required.