Review: Picasso at the Lapin Agile by Austin Playhouse
by Michael Meigs
Kimberly Barrow as the enamored Suzanne comes to the "Lapin Agile" -- the "Nimble Rabbit" -- bar-bistro, looking for Pablo Picasso, the man who enraptured her by drawing a dove on the back of her hand and then having his way with her. She learns, eventually, that maybe the second time is not as good as the first.
I can share that feeling. I reviewed Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile last year as done by the Sam Bass Community Theatre in Round Rock. Theirs was, I reported, "a charming production of a quirky play by America's quirky funnyman Steve Martin." My review tracked through the plot and had a tone of satisfied amusement.
On viewing this Austin Playhouse staging, the thrill was gone, It seemed to me that Steve Martin, like his character Picasso, was seeking too hard to amaze.
Martin sets us in a Paris bistro in 1904, when the young Albert Einstein worked as a clerk in the patent office and the young Pablo Picasso, hungry and unknown, was seeking artistic expression, money, fame and women. His premise is that their encounter at the "Nimble Rabbit" bistro-bar was a defining moment for the twentieth century.
It's a coincidence that 1904 is also the date for the opening scenes of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, recently presented by UT and now onstage at the Zach. Steve Martin's play does not gain by the comparison.
Everyone at the Lapin Agile has an opinion about Big Themes and wants to share it with you, at length. The play is really a monologue of conceptual quibbles and non-sequiturs, in which Martin as sketch writer and professional funnyman stands behind the characters and uses them as a ventriloquist uses his dummies.
There are some genuinely funny moments in the play. Robert Matney, playing Einstein as a sort of Baby Huey, has several of them, and Tom Parker as the acerbic, wistful ageing barfly Gaston has others. David Stahl as the art dealer Sagot scores as well, but his performance is seriously diminished by the decision to turn him into a rouge-cheeked, simpering gay caricature in a cherry red jacket.
Martin pulls some pranks with stage conventions and passes some of them off as riffs on Einstein's theory of relativity. Toward the end of Act II, having written himself into an impasse, Martin escapes by bringing on Elvis -- a variation that's perilously close to the #1 plotting fraud (It was all just a dream). The time warp gives us some laughs, especially with the contrast between the brainy, energetic hijinks of 1904 and Jason Newman's polite, Mississippi-accented cool.
Ben Wolfe as Picasso has his familiar hot-blooded intensity. Cyndi Williams is attractive as the soft-hearted, hard-headed barmaid Germaine, and Huck Huckaby as Freddy the barman has an agreeably unabused view of the world. Kimberly Barrow as various walk-on women -- and, presumably, as Woman -- fills her plot function with perky confidence.
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