I’ve always been a Steve Martin fan. Yes, I enjoy his more zany antics like the Wild & Crazy Guys or King Tut, but I prefer his more understated moments as I find them to be more poignant. Going into PICASSO AT THE LAPINE AGILE, I wondered which Steve Martin would show up in the writing. The answer is: a little of both.
Paris, 1904. Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar. The same bar. That’s the set-up for this one-act play. Einstein is on his way to a rendezvous with a woman, while Picasso is more or less trying to avoid the many women with whom he is involved. The Houston Chronicle, in a scathing review, took issue with these themes in the age of #MeToo. I’m of the opinion that banning or editing a piece because part of it makes us uncomfortable is the wrong choice. The movie PRETTY WOMAN is attempting to make a run at Broadway right now and many are questioning presenting that story in the current climate. But let’s be honest — there are still prostitutes in 2018 and a story like the one presented within that film could still happen. To deny this is to turn a blind eye. BLAZING SADDLES and ALL IN THE FAMILY pointed out blatant racism by making fun of those who practiced it. My point – sometimes seeing things through an uncomfortable lens can be a learning experience. That said, I did not find the premise of PICASSO AT THE LAPINE AGILE to be disturbing or inappropriate in any way. It is a show set in 1904 and the attitudes of the characters is period specific. To do otherwise would be an incorrect choice by the creative team. Thankfully the Chronicle is not part of that.
Dylan Godwin makes the most of his first appearance as an Alley Resident Company member playing Albert Einstein perfectly. Godwin has been in many shows throughout Houston including the Hubbard Stage, but his performance in this show proves why he deserves a spot in the acting company. Every bit his equal is Joseph Castillo-Midyett as Pablo Picasso. He was so animated that I thought he might have stepped out of the HAMILTON ensemble. Full of energy and always in motion, his performance echoed an artist’s mind — always at work and much like his paintings, a larger than life figure. Castillo-Midyett and Torrey Hanson (excellent as the bar regular Gaston) are the only two actors in the play that are not members of the Alley’s resident company. Joining Godwin are company members Shawn Hamilton (also joining this season permanently after great turns in ALL THE WAY and THE GREAT SOCIETY), Elizabeth Bunch as Germaine, Melissa Pritchett playing three roles as Suzanne/A Female Admirer/Countess, the always superb Todd Waite as Sagot the art dealer, Chris Hutchison in a small but hilarious role as Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, and Jay Sullivan in a cameo as a very familiar face from the future.
The bar itself has been beautifully realized by scenic designer Kevin Rigdon, who also was in charge of the lighting. The set uses very little of the recently expanded Hubbard Stage, which is immediately noticeable to those who saw the last production, CLEO, which used a great deal more of the depth. This makes for a more intimate setting and serves the piece well. The costumes were also lovely on the whole, especially Melissa Pritchett’s three costumes in her triple role. However, I must admit that I am starting to see some repeats in some of the costuming, something that I guess must be expected when one is a subscriber for long enough.
The comedy runs from broad to introspective. The larger moments are certainly funny, but I found the play to be at its best in its more reserved moments. Think the movie LA STORY, which if you have not seen, should be on your must-watch list. This is a little-known but beautiful little film with winning performances, a funny and touching story, and a bit of over-the-top thrown in for good measure. But it works. There are some lovely moments scattered throughout PICASSO AT THE LAPINE AGILE that are both funny and touching. At moments, the concept wanders into the absurd (intentionally) and in lesser hands, it might go off the rails. But as always, there is little to quibble with in the acting choices made by the cast so those moments work. When Jay Sullivan’s character (listed as “A Visitor” in the Playbill and whose true identity I will not reveal here) appears in the final minutes of the play, he brings some of the biggest laughs of the night but also serves as a way to tie together all that has happened before (and will happen in the future too). It would never happen (although Einstein might argue that it COULD theoretically) but that’s not the point.
If you could have dinner with anyone from history, who would you invite? While they’re not having dinner, this fun play is perhaps Steve Martin’s answer to that question, at least in a bar setting. Another lovely film of Martin’s, ROXANNE, has moments of absurdity and just plain silliness, but the film works beautifully when taken as a whole. In LA STORY, there are freeway signs that talk to Steve Martin’s character. If you take that literally and say, “Oh, that’s silly. It would never happen!” then you’re probably not going to like this play. But if you can go along for the ride, it’s certainly worth the 90 minutes and you’ll likely find yourself both laughing and perhaps thinking too.
***1/2 out of *****
“Picasso at the Lapine Agile”
By Steve Martin
Directed by Sanford Robbins
Now through June 3rd
Photo: Dylan Godwin as Albert Einstein, Shawn Hamilton as Freddy, Joseph Castillo-Midyett as Pablo Picasso and Torrey Hanson as Gaston in “Picasso at the Lapine Agile” at the Alley Theatre