Twentieth Century Farce 

Two guys walk into a bar, and the 20th century is changed.

Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso walk into a bar. That might sound like the setup to a long joke, but it's natural enough because that's also the premise for this play by comedian Steve Martin. Of course, he's now also an acclaimed "serious" author after his 2000 novella Shopgirl, the movie of which will open this fall. But Picasso at the Lapin Agile was before all that, in 1993, and can be seen as a sort of link between his recent literary endeavors and (to appropriate a phrase) the early funny ones.

Martin is playing with some heady stuff in this fictional encounter in Paris, 1904, just before Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity and Picasso broke out of his Blue Period and started moving toward Cubism, each in his own way setting the tone for the 20th century. Einstein is there only because he arranged to meet a date at another bar, and the theoretical probability of her showing up in the wrong bar accidentally is the same as her going into the right one on purpose. It isn't exactly a play of ideas, but it plays with ideas beautifully.

One of the pitfalls (or pratfalls) of a smart comedy like this is that directors might "punch it up" to make sure you know it's a comedy, and the Center REPertory Company production at Walnut Creek's Dean Lesher Center suffers a little from that kind of accentuated wackiness. Director Michael Butler works a little too hard to sell jokes that could stand on their own without a lot of Fozzie Bear wokka-wokka-wokkas. Dimmed lights and tinkly music underline the magic moment when Einstein first sees a Picasso sketch, as if to substitute for acting. During a couple of arguments, music rises, and everyone starts doing a zany go-go number for no apparent reason. Fortunately, a lot of Martin's jokes are on the silly side anyway, so the broad approach works more often than not.

The imagination is immediately sparked by Kelly Tighe's marvelous set of an intimate bar framed by a semicircle of empty canvases along the top and various knickknacks of the century to come jammed under the floorboards along the edge of the stage.

The strong supporting cast doesn't exactly hurt either. J.D. Nelson is delightfully curmudgeonly as salty old codger Gaston, a barfly always either mourning his long-lost sex life or running off to take a leak. Anthony Nemirovsky struts in loud and proud as a peacock as art dealer Sagot, a flamboyant huckster with a Super Mario mustache. With the forcefully self-assured sexuality of the very young beauty, the type bordering on hubris, Juliet Tanner effectively lights up the room when she enters as Picasso's sometime lover Suzanne, which is nice because she does so several times more as several extravagantly colorful women.

But then, the whole play is full of big entrances, few more so than that of Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, who gives new meaning to the word hubris as inventor of "an inflexible and very brittle building material" made from "equal parts of asbestos, kitten paws, and radium." Jeffrey Draper plays Schmendiman as a wild and crazy guy in the old-school Martin mode, epitomizing dorkhood in his short pants and polkadot bowtie. (The delightfully flashy costumes are by Cassandra Carpenter.) Admittedly, Mitch Polzak gets a bigger entrance toward the end as a mysterious messenger from beyond, but that's a gag that would suffer from spoilers.

Patrick Sieler's solid but relatively understated bartender Freddy almost gets lost amid all these outsize personalities, which is a shame because he's the one with enough distance on it all that he is aware he is a character in a play, and gets to break the fourth wall with observations such as reasoning that his customer can't be Einstein because the cast is listed in order of appearance, and he's the fourth, not the third. He is often the straight man, but also the disinterested observer who has seen it all before. He's the bartender, after all.

His waitress and girlfriend Germaine also is an observer, but a more active one, holding forth on the marketing strategy for Einstein's book or outlining Cassandra-like insights on the century to come. Pursing her lips, sucking in her cheeks, and surveying the proceedings through sultry lowered eyelids, Carrie Paff also gives the character a cooler razzle to Tanner's dazzle, embodying savvy sexuality without getting coquettish about it.

Johnny Moreno is all sex as Picasso, appropriate enough for someone who says "A painter has got to stay well fucked." But his intensity is very much the fickle one of the ladies' man, rather than the fixed one of an artist keenly aware of his own historical importance. His great-artist routine here comes off as empty bravado that through sheer chance happens to be justified, and a streak of petulance answers for the artistic temperament (as it too often does in life).

Taylor Valentine's Einstein is too childlike by half, a wide-eyed naïf who speaks of the importance of his work with the type of giddy pride usually reserved for potty training. There are some very nice touches as well: As Suzanne describes how Picasso's come-ons worked on her, Einstein whips out a little notebook and starts taking notes. It isn't particularly in character, but it's very funny. But the sparring between him and Picasso feels too juvenile for that great moment in which they recognize they are kindred spirits to feel in any way believable or earned, and unfortunately that's the very moment that redeems the central conceit of the play. Without it, the play is just like one of Picasso's little trysts -- good for a few laughs (or more than a few) but hollow at heart.


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