Picasso at the Lapin Agile is written by the iconic comedian/actor/screenwriter/banjo-aficionado Steve Martin. Set in a Parisian bar at the beginning of the 20th century (1904 to be more precise), the play imagines a comical encounter between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, both of whom are in their early twenties and fully aware of their amazing potential.
In addition to the two historical figures, the play is also populated with an amusingly incontinent barfly (Gaston), a gullible yet lovable bartender (Freddy), a wise waitress (Germaine), along with a few surprises that trounce in and out of the Lapin Agile.
The play takes place in one non-stop scene, lasting approximately 80 to 90 minutes. There isn't much plot or conflict; however, there is a satisfying combination of whimsical nonsense and philosophic conversation.
The Meeting of the Minds:
How to spark the interest of the audience: Bring two (or more) historical figures together for the first time. Plays such as Picasso at the Lapin Agile belong to a genre all their own. In some cases, the fictionalized dialogue is rooted in an actual event, such as Million Dollar Quartet (four music legends for the price of one Broadway show). More imaginative revisions of history include plays such as The Meeting, a fabricated yet fascinating discussion between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X.
One could also compare Martin's play to more serious fare, such as Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (which focuses on science and morality) and John Logan's Red (which focuses on art and identity). However, Martin's play rarely takes itself as seriously as the aforementioned dramas. Audience members who don't want to be bogged down with overly-academic monologues and excruciating historical accuracy will be charmed when they discover that Steve Martin's work just skims the surface of much deeper intellectual waters. (If you want more depth in your theater, visit Tom Stoppard.)
Low Comedy Vs. High Comedy
Steve Martin's comic stylings cover a broad range. He isn't above a fart joke, as indicated by his performance in the adolescent-pandering remake of The Pink Panther. However, as a writer, he is also capable of lofty, high-brow material. For example, his 1980s film Roxanne, screenplay by Martin, wonderfully adapted Cyrano de Bergerac setting the love story in a small Colorado town, circa 1980s. The protagonist, a long-nosed firefighter, delivers a remarkable monologue, an extensive list of self-insults about his own nose. The speech is hysterical to contemporary audiences, yet it also harkens back to the source material in clever ways. Martin's versatility is exemplified when one compares his classic comedy The Jerk to his novel Shopgirl, a very subtle blend of humor and angst.
The opening moments of Picasso at the Lapin Agile inform the audience that this play will be making several detours into the land of silliness. Albert Einstein walks into the bar, and when he identifies himself, the fourth wall is broken:
Einstein: My name is Albert Einstein.
Freddy: You can't be. You just can't be.
Einstein: Sorry, I'm not myself today. (He fluffs his hair, making himself look like Einstein.) Better?
Freddy: No, no, that's not what I mean. In order of appearance.
Einstein: Come again?
Freddy: In order of appearance. you're not third. (Taking playbill from audience member.) You're fourth. It says so right here: Cast in order of appearance.
So, from the beginning, the audience is asked not to take this play too seriously. Presumably, this is when snobby historians walk out of the theater in a huff, leaving the rest of us to enjoy the story.
Einstein stops in for a drink while waiting to meet his date (who will be meeting him at a different bar). To pass the time, happily listens to the locals converse, occasionally weighing in his perspective. When a young woman enters the bar and asks if Picasso has arrived yet, Einstein becomes curious about the artist. When he looks at a small piece of paper with a doodle by Picasso he says, "I never thought the twentieth century would be handed to me so casually." However, it is up to the reader (or the actor) to decide how sincere or sarcastic Einstein is about the importance of Picasso's work.
For the most part, Einstein exhibits amusement. While the supporting characters bicker about the beauty of painting, Einstein knows that his scientific equations have a beauty of their own, one that will change humanity's perception of its place in he universe. Yet, he is not too boastful or arrogant, merely playful and enthusiastic about the 20th century.
Did someone say arrogant? Martin's portrayal of the egotistical Spanish artist isn't too far removed from other depictions, Anthony Hopkins, in the film Surviving Picasso, fills his characterization with machismo, passion, and blatant selfishness. So too is Martin's Picasso. However, this younger portrayal is feisty and funny, and more than a bit insecure when his rival Matisse enters the conversation.
Picasso is a lady's man. He is blatant about his obsession with the opposite sex, and he is also unrepentant about casting women aside once he has used them physically and emotionally. One of the most insightful monologues is delivered by the waitress, Germaine. She chastises him thoroughly for his misogynist ways, but it seems that Picasso is happy to listen to the criticism. As long as the conversation is about m, he is happy!
Dueling with Pencils:
Each character's high level of self-confidence draws him to one another, and the most engaging scene of the play takes place when Picasso and Einstein challenge each other to an artistic duel. They both dramatically raise a pencil. Picasso begins to draw. Einstein writes a formula. Both creative products, they claim, are beautiful.
Overall, the play is light-hearted with a few dashes of intellectual moments for the audience to contemplate afterwards. As one would hope from a play by Steve Martin there are more than a few quirky surprises, one of the zaniest being an oddball character named Schmendiman who purports to be as great as Einstein and Picasso, but who instead is simply a "wild and crazy guy."