‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile" is the provocative title of the play now being performed by Princeton Summer Theater (PST)at the Hamilton Murray Theater on Princeton University campus through Sunday, July 10. The Lapin Agile (translation: agile rabbit) is a bar in the Montmartre district of Paris, where Pablo Picasso spent two months in 1899 before returning to his native Spain. The inventive and highly original, serious comedy by humorist, actor, and playwright Steve Martin is set in 1904.
The play – a witty, hilarious, discursive, and chaotic fictionalized account of the meeting of two great geniuses amid the banter of bar room talk – was first produced in Chicago in 199. It won the 1996 Outer Critics Circle Award.
The two young men (Einstein and Picasso were born only two years apart, Einstein in 1879 in Germany, Picasso in 1881 in Spain) engage in fast-repartee about love, art, science, women, and what will come in the new century. Both are geniuses who will "find new ways of looking at the world."
Germaine, the attractive, outspoken bartender’s assistant (admirably played by Jacquelyn Landgraf), is glad to be rid of the 19th century with its pollution (yes, pollution), noise, garbage, and horse shit, and the group in the bar drinks a toast to the 20th century. Freddy, the bartender (well played by Rob Walsh) even projects that the 20th century will be "a century of peace" led by Germany, while "France will be the military power of the century." Another bitter prophesy: Hiroshima will be totally modernized.
PST, an amateur repertory group, presents a nearly professional production, with flawless timing, blocking, and technical aspects. Kyle Booten, complete with telltale mustache, ably plays the scientist, Einstein, who does intricate calculations instantly in his head. Einstein is also the theoretical physicist, insisting on a fourth dimension, time, and the curvature of what appears straight (as in the horizon).
Picasso, a cocky egotist (delightfully played by Jed Peterson) is concerned with painting and women. The glamorous Suzanne, representing some of Picasso’s many women (convincingly played by Carly Voight), arranges an assignation with Picasso. Throughout the 70-minute one-act play, Gaston (broadly played by Timothy McDonough), a frequenter of the bar, keeps going out to the W.C. to pee.
There are plenty of sexual laugh-out-loud jokes. As the lovely Suzanne complains, "Men are always talking about their ‘thing.’" "Oh, you mean Louie," says Gaston. "Heinrich," says Einstein, spreading his legs.
Like Picasso, Einstein also has his way with women, but what’s significantly implied here is that both men will change the century. Ideas come to both with "a crash, a thunk." Picasso declares that his ideas "will change the future." "And mine won’t?" asks Einstein.
The play is about genius but that concept does not escape the misinformed. For example, for comic contrast, enter Schmendiman (Jonathan Elliott), a ridiculous nobody who thinks, by inventing his kooky new building material (containing kitten paws) he, too, will change the century.
Near the end of the play a country boy visitor (Craig Jorczak) from the new century pulls a wall down and reveals a large (and excellent) copy of Picasso’s famous, landmark painting to come (in 1907), his journey into cubism, "Les Demoiselles d’Avignon."
The play ends in a supposedly starlit, dazzling display meant to suggest Einstein’s vast universe. Thank David Bengali (set/light designer) for the all-encompassing tiny lights.
Lest you forget that this play was written by Steve Martin here is just one example of the fast-paced, completely apropos of nothing kind of banter that characterizes the play, talk that becomes a kind of fizzy antidote to the worldy and otherworldy concepts set forth by the two geniuses. The bartender asks, "Have you heard the joke about the baker who was going to bake a pie in the shape of a letter?" The characters ruminate on the potential of various letters, tossing each out unceremoniously – i and j are no good; they have a dot. And you couldn’t even make a comma "because that would be a croissant." And if it were to be an "e," should it be capitalized or lower case? In a talk-back with the audience following the show even the cast members admitted to being puzzled over what they called the "E" joke. But if you take a look at the crazy, surreal drawing on the program’s cover – a Cubist portrait of a bushy-haired Einstein – you would see on his jacket a "Hello" name tag with his famous formula E=mc2. So it’s capital. But then you could say that about the whole play.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Thursday through Saturday, July 7 to 9, at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, July 9 and 10, at 2 p.m. $13 to $15. 609-258-7062.