Martin in His Erudite Period 

Nothing better demonstrates the comic's continuing maturity better than Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Everyone who's seen Repo Man has something from that movie stuck indelibly in their heads, whether it's the way every consumer product is labeled "generic" or the fact that all repossessed cars sport pine-tree-shaped air fresheners. For me, it's LA punk band Burning Sensations singing "Some people like to pick up girls and get called 'asshole' ... this never happened to Pablo Picasso" -- a reworking of the 1976 Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers classic "Pablo Picasso." But it's hard to believe such a thing could be true, especially after seeing Steve Martin's audacious, delightful Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the California Conservatory Theatre of San Leandro, where it seems just about everyone would like to call Pablo Picasso an asshole, or at least an arrogant -- if charming -- little something-or-other.

Set in 1904 in the eponymous Parisian watering hole, Picasso at the Lapin Agile throws together some of the century's leading thinkers and artists. The Lapin Agile was a real place; Picasso held court there until about the end of his Rose Period, when he started making money from his work and moved into a swankier neighborhood. Whether Einstein ever dropped in for an absinthe -- or certain other luminaries beamed in from the future -- is highly unlikely. But Martin makes it happen in a fizzy, heady brew of sex, art, and physics that cheerfully relies on anachronisms, terrible puns, and a total disregard for the fourth wall. For Martin the fourth wall is porous, elastic; actors occasionally speak directly to the audience and drop their accents to refer to things that will happen when the play is over.

For some of us, Steve Martin was a major childhood cultural icon. While our parents might not have let us see his movies or listen to his records because he was cruel and crass (this was well before There's Something About Mary brought cruel and crass to new depths), his mark was nonetheless everywhere. Lots of my guy friends liked to shake their upper bodies in imitation and say, "I'm just a wild and kah-razee guy!" Then they'd usually launch into Martin's King Tut dance. Since the days of Saturday Night Live and The Jerk, Cruel Shoes and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Martin has explored other forms, revealing that alongside a killer wit lies a surprising amount of tenderness. He paints, he writes screenplays, he's got a couple of novels out. He's still ubiquitous, but he's traded the arrow-through-the-head high jinks for a style that is both funny and erudite. Picasso at the Lapin Agile, his breakthrough play, is a fine example.

The play's energy stems from a meeting of Picasso and Einstein, both young and on the verge of the discoveries that will make them famous. They drink, they argue, they chase skirts; all the things you might expect of the artist, but probably not the clerk-turned-physicist. Brian Herndon's Picasso is a coiled spring, pacing and snorting like the bulls of his beloved corridas, twitching his fingers sensuously. "The boy can paint," he acknowledges grudgingly of Matisse, who is twelve years his senior. Meanwhile, if the defining image of Einstein is of an old wild-haired man in a saggy cardigan, Edward Hightower's portrayal is sure to come as a shock. This young Einstein is dapper, precise, and nearly as arrogant as Picasso. He's also got great lines, or maybe Hightower's delivery is the reason -- why else would a sentence like "A triangle with four points is what Euclid rides into hell" be so funny? Hightower sometimes risks going over the top, but he does a hilarious job with a monologue about a cake shaped like the letter E that defies description. Perhaps because he takes something that is patently absurd and treats it with the utmost seriousness. Hightower and Herndon play off each other well as the sparring between the two men begins in the first act and builds steadily over the second.

Art critic Jean-Paul Crespelle insists in his 1967 book Picasso and His Women that it's impossible to understand Picasso's work without knowing about his complex love life. By Crespelle's accounting, there were seven important mistresses or wives in Picasso's life, and each can be directly linked with a phase in his artistic development. So the end of the Blue Period and the cheerful Rose Period relate to his affair with Fernande Olivier, his Cubism to his time with Eva, Guernica and the "dislocated" women were inspired by Dora Maar, and so on. As his own assistant Sabartés said of him, "Never did his creative power manifest itself so strongly as during the paroxysms of his amorous experiences. ... With each new amorous experience we see his art progressing, a new form appearing, another language, a particular method of expression to which you could give a woman's name."

Yet Picasso didn't seem to be capable of true love or respect for women; he told penultimate mistress Françoise Gilot that women were either "goddesses or doormats." He kept former mistresses in plain view of the current one. Gilot in her memoir Life with Picasso recounts that the artist continued to receive love letters from her predecessor, Marie-Thérèse. Picasso would read the "more ardent" bits to Gilot, accusing her of not loving him as much as Marie-Thérèse did.

Martin's Suzanne, a bouncy and impressionable nineteen-year-old, could be entirely fictional, but the way he has her meeting Picasso resembles the first encounter between the artist and his first mistress. Suzanne is played by Sylvia Burboeck, who was so graceful and restrained as Holga in Speakeasy's After the Fall. Here she's giddy and naive, sharing the details of her tryst with Picasso with the Lapin Agile's other patrons with all the fervor and embarrassing candor of youth.

More recognizable as one of Picasso's real-life acquaintances is the unsavory Sagot, one of the artist's first dealers. Sagot wasn't actually an art dealer per se; he sold paintings from his pharmacy, usually for much more than he'd paid. Martin's Sagot defines prospective buyers as people who say "Show us what you've got, taste is no object," and explains why pictures of Jesus don't sell (you can't hang them in the bedroom: "You want Jesus watching over you, but not while you're in the missionary position"). While Dennis Ratto is convincingly sleazy as Sagot, his articulation is occasionally muddy.

There also really was a Freddy, or to be exact Frédè, the bar's owner, who in real life sang old drinking songs and played the guitar. This Freddy is more practical. He's not really prepared to argue art or relativity. But set him to the accounts and he's a fiend -- as witnessed by his testing Einstein's computational acumen with a convoluted story about a shipment of port. Jeff Wincek nails this breathtaking litany of discounts and percentages; it's very funny for a straight bit.

Freddy and girlfriend Germaine are the "straight men" of this piece, the two least wacky of all the characters. Germaine is an older, wiser woman than Suzanne, always trying to respond to the conversation with "a woman's perspective." Christine Rodgers is saddled with a second-act monologue that has to be the play's textual dead spot; Germaine's "men like you" rant has a whinier, meaner tone than the rest of the play, and seems out of place.

Everything else, however, is on target, even if strange -- such as the stream of increasingly odd visitors who liven up the second act. "What Picasso liked about the Lapin Agile was not the company of the loudmouthed, vulgar painters, but a certain warm atmosphere which reminded him of that of the taverns of Barcelona," Crespelle wrote. "The setting was picturesque: as well as painters, students, and deserters from the Chat Noir, the customers included some unusual characters."

Probably not as unusual as some of the ones Martin introduces a century later, or as funny; it's hard to imagine a stranger, more endearing batch than this one.

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