Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Watertown’s New Repertory Theater closes out its 25th season with Steve Martin’s smart comic romp Picasso at the Lapin Agile, playing through May 10 at the Arsenal Center for the Arts.
The Lapin Agile was a Parisian bar that became the subject of a painting by Pablo Picasso. In Martin’s play, Picasso (Scott Sweatt) not only frequents the bar; he meets up with a young Albert Einstein (Neil A. Casey) one night in 1904, in an encounter that allows Martin to explore the meaning of time for art (time is as much a toy as a tool to the artistic mind) and physics (time’s elastic at best, an illusion at worst, when it comes to Relativity).
Martin surrounds Picasso and Einstein with a stable of colorful characters: the young but self-possessed Suzanne (Stacy Fischer), looking to reconnect with the painter after a pair of dalliances and forthright in her views about sex; the barkeep Freddy (Owen Doyle), a foil for the two geniuses who wander in (and out, and in again) to his establishment, as well as to his faithless wife, Germaine (Marianna Bassham).
Picasso is not the only regular in the bar; a slightly incontinent gent named Gaston (Paul D. Farwell), "newly old" as he describes himself, haunts a table and clucks over his unaccountably good mood, while Sagot (Scott H. Severance), an art dealer, pops in and out to show off his newly acquired Matisse and purchase any Picasso scribbles that might come his way.
Others discover the Lapin Agile for the first time, fortuitously happening in just as two great intellects are getting acquainted; among them is Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Dennis Trainor), a ranconteur of an inventor who seems like he, too, should be a figure from history. (He’s not, but he does have a Facebook page.)
Martin’s one-liners flow like a torrent, and the cast, under the direction of Daniel Gidron, play it somewhat broadly; but underneath the jokes there’s a serious thread of deep thought, as Martin riffs on ancient knowledge (Ptolemy) and newer excursions into philosophy (Kant), all while he explores the resonance between science and art, and the divide between the old and the new--with an emphasis on the new.
The new is scary, but exciting, and Martin sums up the difference between new and old with an empty picture frame wielded by Sagot. Inside the frame is anything one might please, but once there, it’s defined and static; outside of the frame lies the unknown, and, by inference, the future, including Einstein’s coming fame and the upheaval of the 20th century. (Martin’s big wink here is a knowing one: the Theory of Relativity is all about frames of reference and the ways in which seemingly universal, unchangeable things like the rate of time’s passage can distort under special circumstances, while the less intuitively obvious constant which is the speed of light never varies--ever.)
With cheerful abandon, Martin tosses anachronisms by the handful into his play (including an iconic, blue-suede-shoes wearing Stranger from the Future, played by Christopher James Webb), and even adds a few metafictive flourishes to the proceedings: Einstein’s arrival takes place before he’s supposed to, in one nifty nod; Freddy uses a program from the play itself to point this out to the errant physicist.
The play’s boundless narrative energy is reflected by the cast, which plays it big and a little hammy; the authentic-looking set by Cristina Todesco and the gorgeous costumes by Frances Nelson McSherry speak to the care and attention that have been lavished on the production; sound designer Dewey Delay and lighting designer John R. Malinowski bring their A-games and a sense of fun.
The New Rep ends its season on a high note with a look back to a time when the future all but trembled with possibility: a time, that is, much like now.