Sunday, December 28, 2008

Review of Delaware Theatre Company's Picasso at the Lapin Agile

First published in Edge Philadelphia, 12-15-2008:

Whether done at a community theatre, college, or professional stage, Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile stands as the one play that I will almost always advise people to see. Particularly if they’ve never before caught a production.

Set in a Parisian café in 1904, the play imagines a chance meeting between Pablo Picasso (Caesar Samayoa) and Albert Einstein (Matt Pfeiffer) before both of them became internationally famous in their respective fields. In conversation that ranges over art and science and what separates or unifies the two, their giant egos collide; the bar’s patrons chime in with discussions on the value of art, the nature of sex and the battle of the sexes, with the entire evening filtered through and enlivened by Martin’s unmatchable wit. (Yes, it’s that Steve Martin.)

As I said, I’d almost always recommend this play. I’ve even enjoyed staged readings, where nine actors in chairs read from the script and found all the laughter that bubbles forth from the wellspring of Martin’s wide-ranging comedic gifts. However, at Delaware Theatre Company (DTC), director David Stradley’s addition to and re-framing of the script proves that there’s not a script that’s safe from a director who thinks he can improve it.

Rather than feel charming and light and offer a sense of poignant grandeur-seriously, imagine a meeting between Einstein and Picasso-this production simply felt weird, as if Stradley wanted DTC’s audience to view an evening at a Parisian bar through the same kaleidoscopic refractions that Picasso made visible in his paintings. From the bizarre-and wholly unnecessary-opening that introduces all the characters like they’re arriving to perform in a pageant, to the strange interludes of dance and song that punctuated (or rather "punctured") the script, I started to wonder what’s next, having the Visitor (Danny Bernardy) arrive in the manner of an alien abduction?

I can’t blame choreographer Samantha Bellomo for her contributions, and I liked Eric Schaeffer’s scenic design of three inter-set painting frames. Both did what Stradley asked. But why he asked for a longish dance interlude to dilute the charm of Martin’s play baffles, especially since Martin’s self-referential lines already frame the play in a light, witty fashion.

When Einstein arrives, the bartender interrupts him to say "wait, you can’t be Einstein, you arrived third." To prove his point, he runs into the audience, snatches one a patron’s program and then says "see, you’re supposed to come on fourth." Later, one of Picasso’s lovers asks when he’ll return to his apartment. His reply: "When the play’s over." But Stradley ignores this straightforward device in favor of leaving his own mark on the play. Next up, his director’s edit of "The Jerk."

Due largely to individual efforts, much of the humor of Martin’s play shined through. John Morrison (as bar regular Gaston) lurched across the stage in his incredibly humorous portrayal of an aging Frenchman, and Aaron Cromie’s physical dexterity (as the art dealer Sagot) enlivened his every appearance. As the bar owner Freddy and his bickering wife Germaine, both Jeb Kreager and Lee Ann Etzold delivered deadpan humor that set an undercurrent for the more vibrant explosions of comedy (though I’ve seen Etzold deliver far more laughs with her deadpan in "The Happiness Lecture," where she positively shone, but the staging-having her walk toward the back of the bar while speaking-doesn’t help her here).

Pfeiffer and Samayoa both create fascinating versions of their characters that never degrade into caricature, and Pfeiffer especially (and almost by himself) manages to capture the moments of poignancy woven into Martin’s script. Bernardy’s "Visitor" smartly gave everyone in the audience a reason to smirk, and Nathan Holt garners ten-minutes of laughs as Schmendiman, the born-to-fail inventor of an asbestos product (even without the requisite intensity that should have sent him zooming in and out of the bar).

However, when Karen Peakes provides the most charming bit of the play in a one-minute, single-gag appearance, her brief moment reflects the inability of Stradley to capture the essence of Martin’s comedy. DTC’s production gets laughs; but never inspires a a sense of wonder. Stradley fails to gild the entire evening with a sense of joyous magic and, in the process, strains the credulity of Martin’s inventive meeting of the two minds that shaped the 20th Century. Martin basically gift-wraps this comedy for any production. Sometimes the best approach for a director is to take it with hat in hand.

Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water St. Wilmington, DE, presents Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile until Dec. 21. Tickets and information available at

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