Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Picasso at the Lapin Agile
One can almost imagine Steve Martin on stage himself beginning a joke with "Into a bar walks one night Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein ..."
On this particular night in the Lapin Agile (French for "Nimble Rabbit"), there arrive some of the bar's eclectic and eccentric regulars as well as a few surprise drop-ins, including a blue-suede-shoed visitor from the future. When the young Einstein pops in announcing to the two already there that he has come to meet a woman he has actually told to meet him in a different bar (believing it does not really matter because she thinks like him and will eventually wander here instead), he is soon told by the bartender, Freddy, to leave, showing Einstein the night's playbill which calls for him to be fourth in appearance, not third. This is just the first of several laugh-out-loud examples where the playwright reminds us in true Steve Martin style that no, this is not reality–It is a play. Silly, yes, but so is much of the evening's romping riff on what is real and not real.
Keenan Flagg is, surprisingly, an endearing young Einstein who often listens intently to others slightly open-mouthed in contemplation and with a gaze of fully engaged interest to those fellow bar mates clearly of much less I.Q. than he. Flagg's Einstein can be self-deprecating, with a twinkle in his eye and a nod to the future's views of him ("I am the kind of person who will always look eighty-six"), at one point–after being told, "You just can't be [Einstein]"–mussing up his neatly combed hair and frowning his youthful countenance in order more to resemble whom we now know as Einstein.
His more mild-mannered, modestly attired nature is in great contrast to Stephen Kanaski's Picasso, a debonair but ego-centric young man in stylish wear who bursts into the bar as if onto a stage (which of course it is) with the announcement, "I have been thinking about sex all day." He exudes confidence in his recent speedy creation of drawings (sixteen drawings–all women–that very day) and brags, "If I can think it, I can draw it ... The idea is ahead of the pencil only by minutes ... One day, they will be simultaneous."
When Picasso asks the stranger Einstein, "Do you know what that's like ... the feeling of clear, undiluted vision?" Einstein quips modestly, "I have a vague idea." As Albert explains that he is a scientist but sometimes feels like an artist, the theatrically prone Pablo retorts, "Well, multiply it by a thousand and you know what it feels to be like me."
The jockeying between the two continues as they eventually move into a back-and-forth debate between the genius of a pencil drawing a formula to one drawing a figure of a person, between the beauty of theory versus that of ideas, between ideas from the head versus those from the heart. But once the two begin to realize that they each can dream the impossible and then create a world to bring it into reality, they become like two boys who are exuberantly excited to have found a new pal. Both Stephen Kanaski and Keenan Flagg excel in creating memorable, mind-challenging/expanding images and personalities that greatly contradict those we often carry in our minds of the later historical icons they will become.
Much of the increased humanness that we begin to see in these men we now often view as almost gods comes from their interactions with the bar's owner and his wife and the night's other patrons. Chris Reber directs with obvious glee and pleasure their many comings and goings and conversations that vary in subject from cats to pigeons, from sex obsessions to dead lovers, from alphabet-shaped pies to why pictures of Jesus and sheep are not marketable. To a person, the cast members expertly create characters distinct in their quips and quirks, each with at least one moment where the spotlight lands on them alone to command our deserved, undivided attention and to elicit well-deserved laughs.
Aaron Hurley is the congenial, somewhat simple-minded bar owner/tender Freddy, who is quick to agree with almost every argument/explanation from all the opposing points of view voiced but who in the end is genius enough to understand the playwright's overall theme that the best of the twentieth century emerges from science, art, and music–and not from politicians or those in business. Freddy's waitress wife Germaine (as is the woman in Picasso's painting of the Lapin Agile) is both thoughtful and insightful as well as beautiful and sexy, with Gabriella Goldstein excellently portraying a combination of the two worlds of Einstein and Picasso.
Into the bar wander three different women looking for a recent lover (including each of our two geniuses), all played brilliantly by April Green. Her quick shifts in costume, hairstyles, and personalities are impressive.
Hilarious in his boisterous, brazen manners and proclamations is Tom Gough as the old Frenchman, Gaston, whose main interests in life are wine, women, and the nearest bathroom (the last due to his being "newly old" with an obvious prostrate problem, often announcing in the loudest of voices, "I have to pee"). John Stephen King is an art dealer, Sagot, who loves promoting Matisse (much to Picasso's irritation) and being able to declare to the world what is good art and what is not (and to make a lot of money from the former).
Challenging the genius and talent of Einstein and Picasso is an inventor named Schmendiman, who bombastically and with much flair proclaims that it will be his name that is remembered in posterity, especially after his latest invention of a building material made of asbestos, kitten paws, and radium. While Mohamed Ismail's Schmendiman does his best to make the case that he will be the third part of the new century's most famous triad (along with Einstein and Picasso), Steve Martin makes it hilariously clear that commercialism definitely does not rate being said in the same breath with science and the arts.
When a visitor from the future (Kalyn McKenzie) suddenly appears amid roaming spotlights and blinking lights, Martin adds his own third member of the holy deity of the twentieth century to counter Schmendiman's self-suggestion: a Memphis boy with slicked-back, black hair and with legs that cannot stop erotically shaking back and forth. The playwright–himself a Grammy-awarded musician–makes a case that the "note across the staff" ranks as equally important as "the line across the paper" and the "idea across the mind."
Seafus Smith's designed Lapin Agile is a bar that is welcoming and warm and just enough weird, with Freddy's proud possession of a dominating painting of three sheep in fog to fit right into a Steve Martin evening. Kevin Davies' properties fill the shelves of the bar with period glassware that are filled and re-filled from the many, beautifully shaped bottles of liquor. Lisa Claybaugh's costumes are a huge reason the setting in Paris, the time of 1904, and each person's personality are quickly affixed in our minds.
The ninety minutes of the Los Altos Stage Company's production of Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile come and go almost too quickly. While this play will never be seen as one of the twentieth century's great works of stage art, at the end of the evening each minute has been thoroughly entertaining in a pleasant and satisfying manner.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile runs through February 19, 2023, at Los Altos Stage Company, Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos CA. For tickets and information, please visit losaltosstage.org. Please note that masks are required to be worn by all audience members during the performance.