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La Hell Epoque

Picasso and Einstein (and Steve Martin) at The Lapin Agile

Let's hope the technical gremlins that hovered over Theater on the Square for the opening of Steve Martin's much-anticipated play Picasso at the Lapin Agile have departed by now, and that the supposedly magical climax of this dubious fantasy is in working order. Otherwise audiences may be as bewildered as I was when a dreary painting of a flock of sheep suddenly disappeared from its wall in a pyrotechnic flash, and absolutely no one onstage reacted. "Oh, well," I thought, "they'll come up with the punch line any second now." But, no. The action continued.

I was still trying to make sense of this odd and totally unacknowledged sight gag when it was confirmed that the stunt had come a few minutes before it was supposed to. In the middle of a lengthy exchange about the unfathomable nature of modern art, everyone turned solemnly to gaze at the (still) blank wall. Then each launched into an enthusiastic interpretation of the landscape-with-sheep that used to be there. It reminded me of the emperor's new clothes, an unfortunate metaphor for the whole evening: This troupe of seasoned professionals (under the frantic direction of Randall Arney), who have been with the show since New York, were either a) at a complete loss, or b) operating from a collective decision to ignore technical problems no matter how obvious, or c) both.

In a play loosely constructed toward the moment when that otherwise innocuous picture disappears and is replaced by one of Picasso's masterpieces, this is not a minor glitch. It should be correctable, however, while the play's other problems are deeper and more intractable: Despite its intense desire to wow the audience, Picasso is really just a fitfully amusing, multijoke sketch with pretensions.

The playwright apparently asked himself what might have happened if Einstein and Picasso had encountered one another at certain points in their careers. (For Einstein, the anonymous years before the publication of his theory of relativity; for Picasso, the waning days of his "blue period," just before cubism.) The answer, which plays out for some 90 minutes without intermission, is -- not very much.

Set in Paris in 1904, Picasso at the Lapin Agile features a group of bar patrons who seem stunned to realize that the 20th century is well under way. (Maybe it's the absinthe.) They settle in to while away an evening and muse picturesquely on many things. Of course, this is meant to be high-level musing, as a young and exuberant Einstein (grossly overacted by Mark Nelson) is on hand, to be joined, shortly thereafter, by a young and lusty Picasso (Paul Provenza).

Meanwhile, though, there's Gaston (Richard Kuss), an older man who longs for a "nice juicy manifesto ... a raison d'etre with your morning coffee," but whose reason for being there is confined to providing atmosphere. Additional local color arrives in the person of Suzanne (Rebecca Creskoff), who rips off a prim, schoolmarmish blouse and replaces it with a daring velvet bodice. She's waiting for Picasso, and she's come prepared.

Overseeing everything is Freddy (Robert Ari), the genial host and owner of the ill-fated painting, and Germaine (Rondi Reed), Freddy's wise and earthy wife. There are other visitors -- most notably, Sagot (Bill Buell), a flamboyantly effeminate (a la Paul Lynde) art dealer, and Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Peter Jacobson), who imagines himself a 20th-century visionary.

They all trade predictions for the future, many of which are -- predictably -- amusingly accurate. They contemplate a shaggy-dog story that has to do with a pie being baked in the shape of a small "e." If a systematic explanation of the joke through the entire alphabet tickles your funny bone, then, hey, this may be the show for you. You might even find the following hilarious:

Sagot to Picasso (slightly paraphrased): "I understand your work, and I explained it to them for two hours."

Picasso: "Did they get it?"
Sagot: "I don't know. They left after the first hour." (Budda-bum)
Indeed, Picasso is really a vaudeville, and its heart is with the jokes and wealth of puns Martin is so good at. The proceedings get tedious when various characters begin to hold forth on art and science and The Meaning of It All, and it's hard to tell from moment to moment whether such self-conscious preciousness is intended to be funny. Especially with lines like: "This is the night the earth fell quiet and listened to a conversation." Uh-huh.

A good part of the problem rests with the actors. They seem to be competing to overact the most outrageously. I'll bet if Steve Martin were here performing the material himself as stand-up, which is how too much of it comes across, it would be funny. But watching some of the members of this ensemble (Ari's Freddy and Reed's Germaine excepted) sweat and strain and beat these poor little jokes over the head is rather like -- well, it's like watching someone try a Steve Martin routine. Someone with very little idea of how Martin mixes the corny with the sweet and outrageous and comes up with the hilarious.

But there's no getting away from Martin's script, which takes itself entirely too seriously. I kept imagining Steve with his pal Dan Aykroyd, as those wild and crazy guys, trying to pick up chicks with lines like: "I am dreaming for the billions yet to come." Yeah. Sure.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile runs through Sept. 1 at Theater on the Square, 450 Post, S.F.; call 433-9500.

 
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