Steppenwolf Theatre Company

In his 1988 movie Young Einstein Australian actor-director Yahoo Serious portrayed Albert Einstein as the father of rock ‘n’ roll and carbonated beer. Picasso at the Lapin Agile is somewhat more restrained; its author, comedian Steve Martin, lets us know that he is a serious yahoo. Martin’s young Einstein is content to devise scientific formulas and admire the flamboyance of his contemporary Pablo Picasso, whom he meets in a Paris bar called the Lapin Agile.

Lapin agile means “nimble bunny,” and Martin’s comedy does suggest such an animal. In fact, it’s rather like the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories: all hopped up and convinced of its own importance as it leads us down a hole where time, space, and reality are whimsically warped–and where nothing much actually happens.

Set in 1904 (the year Picasso settled in France for good, and a couple of years before he painted his revolutionary, African-influenced Les demoiselles d’Avignon), Martin’s play posits a barroom encounter between the volatile young Spaniard and the quirky German, who was developing the theses whose publication the next year would make his name and revolutionize scientific thought. (The script wrongly suggests Einstein was living in Paris in 1904; he was in Switzerland, working as a patent officer.)

In the hands of a real playwright–Tom Stoppard, say, or Terry Johnson, whose Insignificance depicted a mind-expanding meeting between Einstein and Marilyn Monroe during the McCarthy era–such an encounter might have led to dramatic sparks, provocative insights into the 20th century, a heightened appreciation of Einstein’s and Picasso’s work, maybe even a startling comprehension of the fragility of life. Certainly it would have moved us with its portrait of two idealistic geniuses destined for disillusion on an epic scale: a German Jewish pacifist who lived through the Holocaust and then saw his scientific theories used to create the atom bomb, and the freedom-loving Spanish artist who saw his homeland overtaken by fascists and who later in life cynically described himself as “only a public entertainer who has understood his time.” The tragedy inherent in their lives is far more profound than the glib toast to “the age of regret” Martin passes off as deepthink.

In this extended television sketch for the stage, Picasso and Einstein utter platitudes about the mystery of the creative process and engage in a duel of pencils to see who can come up with brilliance and beauty fastest. (Einstein wins.) Picasso goes around scratching drawings on pretty girls’ hands with his fingernail–embarrassing himself when he does it to the same woman twice without remembering her. (Einstein also displays an interest in unattached females–though in reality he was newly married to his childhood sweetheart at this time. Maybe he had to go to Paris to fool around.)

Pleased to be entertained by this meeting of minds are the other habitues of the tavern: Suzanne, who’s tracked Picasso down at the bar following a brief fling with him two weeks earlier; Gaston, an old-timer just getting used to the limitations of age (including the condescension of people like Suzanne, who’s shy about disrobing in front of other men but not him–since he’s elderly, he’s probably OK); Sogol, an oversize art dealer proudly brandishing a miniature Matisse; Germaine the barmaid, who dreams of a country boy and gets what she dreams of in a way she never imagined; Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, a dumb inventor who’s convinced that he is the century-shaping genius; and a time-traveling Elvis Presley, who pops in to conjure up for Picasso the epochal painting he has yet to execute. (As the colorful Les demoiselles d’Avignon appeared on the back wall as if by magic, the woman behind me gasped in culture- vulture delight: “Ah . . . Guernica.”)

Presiding over the scene is Freddy, the no-nonsense barkeep, to whom Martin gives the play’s misguided message: In the 20th century, he forecasts, “the movements of people across nations will be less interesting than the movement of the line across the paper, the note across the staff, or the idea across the mind.” Thanks, Steve; tell it to the Jews in Russia and Germany, the Muslims in Israel and Bosnia, the blacks in South Africa, and the Indians in Guatemala.

That’s not to diminish the importance of pure thought, as represented by Picasso’s scientific art and Einstein’s artful science–just to note that Martin’s cleverly phrased but shallowly considered epigrams trivialize the ambitious material he’s chosen for his theatrical debut. One would applaud his bravery if it looked more like bravery and less like arrogance.

Under Randall Arney’s direction, the cast (which actually includes several Steppenwolf ensemble members!) delivers a slickly acted performance of this lightweight work. Jeff Perry as Einstein is all stiff, jerky moves, high-pitched voice, and obliging manner; Tim Hopper prowls the stage with predatory grace as the egomaniacal, oversexed Picasso. Robert Breuler is in fine puckish form as Sogol; Travis Morris is wonderfully gentle as Elvis; Tracy Letts as Freddy confidently handles Martin’s flirtations with Ionesco-style absurdism (unconvinced that Einstein is who he claims to be, Freddy walks into the audience to check a viewer’s program); Rondi Reed is sensually earthy as Germaine, who incites mockery when she prophesies a world in which people fly in airplanes and smoking is banned in restaurants; and Troy West is extravagantly loutish as Schmendiman, the sort of jerk Martin once specialized in portraying. Best of all is Nathan Davis, who brings genuine feeling to old Gaston. Scott Bradley’s rustic inn is beautifully lit by Kevin Rigdon, and Allison Reeds’s costumes fit the characters superbly.

All in all, Picasso at the Lapin Agile is not a bad little beginner’s effort. It’s cute, soft, and quick–like a rabbit–and Steppenwolf’s production is quality itself. But I wonder how many theatergoers would bother with it if the author’s name were, say, Schmendiman.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.