BWW Review: PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE at Theatre Tulsa
There is a real bar in France called the Lapin Agile. There was a real physicist named Albert Einstein, and a real artist named Pablo Picasso. But their serendipitous meeting over drinks at said bar is entirely imaginary - straight from the mind of comedic visionary Steve Martin, to be exact. His play depicting this encounter, entitled Picasso at the Lapin Agile, is currently playing at the Tulsa PAC. Theatre Tulsa's production brings a gutsy and committed cast to a script that is as eccentric as its titular character.
Some reviewers have compared Martin's script to a series of SNL sketches, but a more apt comparison would be to the avant-garde absurdist plays of the 1950s and 60s. If you're expecting formulaic jokes about genius and art-making, this is not the show for you. Picasso at the Lapin Agile certainly plays with formula, but intentionally deconstructs his theatrical blueprints through self-referential humor. We see this kind of joke in the first few minutes of the play, and it toys with the idea of the cast being listed "in order of appearance" in the program: one of the characters interrupts the scene to grab a program from the hands of an audience member, and he points out that Einstein has entered too soon, since he is listed later in the program than another character. Some less explicit instances of self-reference are related to comedy and its function in the play. After a particularly ridiculous joke, Einstein remarks, "You don't laugh now, but an hour later, you're at home, standing in front of the ice box, and you laugh."
This meta-theatricality combined with a vague backdrop of history, intellectuals, and artists could easily be a setup for pseudo-profound narcissistic musings, but luckily, the play doesn't take itself that seriously. Sure, Martin's script flirts with the big ideas evoked by the presence of these titans of the 20th century. In one scene, Einstein contends that he is like Picasso because he "make(s) beautiful things with a pencil," and Picasso responds, "For me, the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line." Einstein quips back, "Likewise." However, the play is far from Michael Frayn's Copenhagen or John Logan's Red - both of which provide fictionalized accounts of historical figures grappling with the ideological struggles that marked their careers. Instead, Picasso at the Lapin Agile balances sheer absurdity with just enough grounding in our background knowledge of Einstein, Picasso, and the Paris art scene to make connections that are at intervals humorous and tentatively thoughtful.
This tension between absurd humor and the nuggets of seriousness that it conceals is a difficult thing to capture, but Theatre Tulsa's cast, with direction by Vern Stefanic, dives into the challenge with confidence. Thomas Hunt as Einstein immediately puts the audience at ease with his unassuming and wistful portrayal of the young physicist, and Juan Reinoso embodies the ridiculous magnitude of Picasso's character without detracting from the rest of the cast. Indeed, the play is truly an ensemble piece that requires ongoing energy and critical moments from a full cast of players, and Theatre Tulsa does not fall short. Timothy Hunter as Gaston and Tabitha Littlefield as Germain in particular giving refreshingly understated performances.
One especially absurd character in the play named Schmendiman, played by the bubbly Stephen Remington, says, "You see there's a distinction between talent and genius. And it's not just that they are spelled completely different. Talent is the ability to say things well, and genius is the ability to, well, say things!" While this exclamation is cloaked in several levels of irony and silliness in the context of the play, it seems as though Martin is nudging us towards the beauty of just saying things, and then maybe laughing at them later.
Visit the Tulsa PAC website for tickets: https://purchase.tickets.com/buy/TicketPurchase?orgid=37848&group_id=733219&schedule=list