Sunday, April 08, 2007

PLAY: "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"

Picasso at the Lapin Agile is one of the few comedies I've seen that successfully mixes the highbrow with the low, which should be no surprise as it's written by Steve Martin, an oscillating force if there ever were one. However, the current presentation at T. Schreiber Studio is somewhat of a solemn affair, and as a result, the joy of Martin's comic observations are often muted. Cat Parker's direction is excellent, with clever blocking that makes the punctilious puns of this play seem more natural, but the cast lacks the energy for slapstick, and the passion of Picasso (and Einstein, to a lesser affair) is a bit sloppy.

The show is on a slippery slope when the humorous rapport between characters gets too close to the rhapsodic discussion of art; when Schmendiman enters, he's supposed to steal the show with his absurdism: he's not supposed to be the first instance of laugh-out-loud comedy. It's not Parker's fault: she can change the lighting and underscore the quiet drama, but the only place she can do that for the comedy is the wild-west showdown between Picasso and Einstein.

All the technical choices work in Parker's favor, too: the set evokes the early-20th century vibe of a Parisian bar, and the costumes are dashing, be they intellectual or painterly, rich or snobbish, blue collar or blue suede. The cast speaks frequently to the audience (in fact, some of Martin's jokes are aimed at the structure of the play itself, like the Order of Appearance), so the choice to have VIP guests drinking wine in the side booths is both clever and an efficient use of space. The one ill-fitting choice is to have the bartender introduce the theater company and the play at the same time; that takes too much from the setting, and considerably slows the pace of the opening. (A fact that isn't helped by either Frank Mihelich's plodding simplicity as Freddy, or Jim Aylward's unsexed portrayal of Gaston.)

On the whole, this production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile is pretty good. It's a little too sober--the actors don't seem to be having very much fun channeling Martin--but it's got a pleasant aftertaste, and there are plenty of icebox laughs left in this masterful script.

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