“Albert Einstein walks into a bar,” sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s actually the premise of a delightful little script with top-notch credentials being produced at the Midland Center for the Arts this weekend and next. Picasso at the Lapin Agile, written by one of our most enduring comedians, Steve Martin, has the daunting task of imagining a meeting between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in 1904 at a real-world Parisian bar. These names are now synonymous with singular genius in their respective fields, but at the Lapin Agile they are just Pablo and Al - enjoying some drinks, trying to get lucky, and facing off about art and science.
Albert Einstein is played aptly by Kyle Sanborn, with clear diction and excellent timing. Stephen Fort as Pablo Picasso also does an admirable job, nicely contrasting Sanborn’s fastidiousness with oozing sensuality. The duo play nicely off of each other and provide a solid anchor, and much of the thought-provoking musings, throughout the show. Although the story features these two icons, it is the non-famous characters that flesh out the narrative and provide for much of the humor. Standouts include MJ Wisniewski as the owner/bartender of the Lapin Agile and John Tanner as an aging patron. Also excellent is Sarah Gochenour as a high-energy art dealer and Ben Mellish as a huckster inventor, both more representative of the less-than-idealistic aspects of the 20th Century. Although Nikki Daveluy only had a moment onstage, she brought the biggest laugh of the night from me with her excellent delivery. Zion Lange as The Visitor makes you double take (you’ll get it when you see it). Jean Ciampi as a bartender has a lovely energy and presence, and Madeline Vallazza as one of Picasso’s lovers has excellent physicality and reactions. Melissa Bornemann rounds out the cast in a small but key role.
Director Sarah Smith had her work cut out for her, with an ambitious script that combines sometimes broad humor with meaningful and introspective monologues - it’s a tough balance to strike and she does it admirably. She doesn’t have much room to play with, and she manages to keep the action flowing and the timing pitch-perfect for most of the show. She and her actors have clearly added their own touches to this production. It is an example of the labor of love and creativity that makes live theatre such a special event. If you saw Picasso elsewhere, you wouldn’t be seeing the same show (in a good way). If I had one issue, I found myself wishing that Smith had scrapped the accents. While none were truly detrimental, I found them a bit distracting and overall unnecessary to what is ultimately an absurdist fantasy that frequently breaks the fourth wall. Also (and this is more a quibble with the script), there is a throwaway joke that hints at a deeper examination of artistic appropriation from black communities, but ultimately it goes nowhere. For me, it shaded the very moving finale with some troubling racial implications; perhaps even changing the timing of the technical effect that happened on the tail of that line could have allowed for better reactions from the actors and possibly changed the reception of the line from glib to pointed.
The Lapin Agile is a character herself, designed by Evan Lewis to spectacular detail. From the moment you see this beautiful set you can’t stop delighting at all the surprises that have been worked in. Although it cut the available stage space down quite a bit for the actors and director, the entire group worked phenomenally to make sure that it never felt cramped or over-staged. Also excellent were costumes (well fitted, attractive, and interesting to look at) by the team of Johnson, Harner, Brecht, Spence, Kitts, and Robinson. There were a few times I felt the lights designed by Bill Anderson got a little too dark, but overall everything was lovely and the big moment at the end was beautiful. Sound was by Jeremy Hanson, and props were by the team of Berlanga, Daveluy, Padavana, and Andrews.
To me, Picasso at the Lapin Agile represents so much about what is best about live theatre. If someone wants to go out for a night of quality belly laughs, this is a play for them. If someone wants to discuss the parallels between art and science, think about the fourth dimension, or be moved by a celebration of some of the best things the 20th Century brought us, this play is great for them too! Martin’s sharp writing combined with Director Sarah Smith’s commitment to timing and active staging, as well as a top-notch cast and production team make this a show not to be missed! Tickets are available at mcfta.org, and the show runs from 1/11-1/19.