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Entertainment Equals Steve Martin's Comedy Squared For The Stage. Squared For The Stage.

By Dave Irwin

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  A LADY BEHIND me at the Arizona Theatre Company's opening of actor/comedian/writer Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile saved me a lot of work. Standing up after the 90-minute romp, she said to whoever she was with, "Well, that was cute."

Not brilliant, hilarious or bad. Cute. Cute, like a dog you don't mind petting but wouldn't want to own. Not a condemnation, but at best a damning by faint praise. Make no mistake--if you enjoy Martin's sly and smart style of humor, this is a fun presentation. If you're looking for a rich exploration of ideas, rather than a very light comedy of set pieces and one-liners, you'll be disappointed.

The play imagines a fantastic meeting between Pablo Picasso (Jos Viramontes) and Albert Einstein (Michael Santo) in a Parisian bar in 1904 before either became famous.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile belongs to a modern theatre sub-genre: comic fantasy wholly dependent on recognition of the famous author/star's prior work for its own context. Other examples include Kurt Vonnegut's Between Time And Timbuktu, or Prometheus-5, and Jane Wagner's vehicle for Lily Tomlin, The Search For Signs Of Intelligent Life In The Universe. These are not works intended to stand anonymously on their own merits. They require a prior knowledge of Vonnegut's novels, Tomlin's panoply of characters or Martin's own comedy career for us to fully appreciate the humor. This particular sub-genre also takes advantage of the opportunity to bend reality so that cosmic things can happen to make a point, or better yet, get a laugh.

Underlining our expectations, when Santos enters the bar as Einstein, he moves just as we would imagine Martin himself entering, in Roxanne or The Jerk. Anyone familiar with Martin's work can hear him delivering lines throughout the play. As the comedy develops, no one would have been at all surprised to see the Spanish painter and the Swiss patent clerk suddenly become a couple of Czech brothers, twisting in unison at the bar and saying together, "We are two wild and crazy guys!"

Martin's script includes a funny break of stage conventions regarding order of appearance, just enough swearing during Picasso's entrance to get our attention, lots of small laughs and even a few big ones.

Directed by David Ira Goldstein, the production never forgets that it's a staged performance for a paying audience, and it delivers the goods with broad mugging and exaggerated punchlines. The sumptuous set, designed by Bill Forrester, is beautifully detailed, enhancing the level of fantasy, especially towards the end of the play when the arrival of a visitor from our end of the century requires pyrotechnics and Las Vegas lighting.

Santo plays Einstein with a tempered smugness, a man who has figured out the mechanics of the universe but is unsure if you can earn a living from that. Viramontes portrays the fiery passion of Picasso as a counterpoint to Einstein's self-assured smirk. Both serve their characters well. In the supporting roles, Gerald Burgess as barkeep Freddy, Roberto Guajardo as Gaston, the play's Everyman with bladder problems, and Deborah van Valkenburgh as Germaine, Freddy's waitress/girlfriend and the voice of female perspective, seemed most in tune. Stephanie Shine in multiple female roles, David Orley as know-it-all Schmendiman (a send-up of Martin's early stand-up comedian persona), Jared Sakren as the art dealer Sagot, and Kelland Lindsey as the Visitor round out the cast.

Perhaps if Martin, who holds a master's degree in philosophy, had explored the more cerebral implications of this imagined meeting along with the comedic, Picasso At The Lapin Agile might seem less of a trifle overall. As it stands, it's a pleasant and tasty bon-bon, but nothing meaty.

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