Vienna Theatre Company Picasso at the Lapin AgileBy Bob Ashby • Oct 25th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Vienna Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Vienna Community Center, Vienna, VA
Through November 3rd
90 minutes without intermission
Reviewed October 18th, 2013
Writers have long been attracted to stories based on meetings that never happened. The all-time champion of this league was Steve Allen’s “Meeting of Minds” TV series, in which Allen hosted dinner conversations among historical and fictional characters, such as Attila the Hun, Oliver Cromwell, Catherine the Great, Hamlet, and Emily Dickinson. Imagined meetings can occur in varied genres: science fiction (Phillip Jose Farmer’s “Riverworld” series, in which Richard Francis Burton, Mark Twain, Herman Goering, and Tom Mix — in fact, everyone who ever lived on earth — deal with resurrected life on a strange extraterrestrial planet); contemporary drama (The Meeting, pairing Martin Luther King and Malcolm X); and mystery thrillers (“The Seven Percent Solution,” teaming Sherlock Holmes with Sigmund Freud). Steve Martin’s entry in this field, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, now running at the Vienna Theatre Company (VTC), pictures a 1904 chat involving the artist, Albert Einstein, and miscellaneous local characters in a Paris bar.
The fictional meeting occurs in a real place. There was a Lapin Agile in Montmartre; it still exists, probably more for tourists than artists. Picasso, Utrillo, and other artistic and bohemian folk did hang out there. Picasso made a famous 1905 painting of himself sitting at the bar. In Martin’s script, the encounter there is a setup for a schematic debate between science (in the near corner, Einstein) and art (in the far corner, Picasso) as the new 20th century gets under way. The argument is pretty tame, leading to the unsurprising conclusion that both are valuable and that the two men have more in common than either might initially have supposed. As the womanizing Picasso, Robert King is more about libido than canvas and pigment, notwithstanding his well-delivered monologues about his artistic passions. Less believably, the script makes Einstein — played by David Carter with a full repertory of silent movie-like physical moves — as competition for Picasso in squiring ladies around town (in 1904, the historical Einstein lived in Switzerland with his wife and child). King and Carter both convey the bright, clever, egotism of about-to-be-famous young men.
If its discussion of art and science is tepid, the play’s discussion of sex is a good deal more interesting, especially in the character of Germaine (Annie Ermlick), the lover of Freddy (Stu Fischer), the bar’s owner. “The only reason you got into art and physics in the first place,” she tells the protagonists, “is to meet girls.” Fully realizing a compelling woman who plays by her own rules, for her own purposes, Ermlick — in a play chock full of monologues — provides the most ruefully perceptive of them all, telling Picasso
You like them young, because you can bamboozle them into thinking you are great. You want them when you want them, never when they want you. Afterwards, you can’t wait to leave, or if you are unlucky enough to have her at your place, you can’t wait for her to leave, because the truth is, we don’t exist afterwards, and all conversation becomes meaningless because it’s not going to get you anywhere because it already got you there. You are unreachable. Your whole act is a camouflage. But you are lucky because you have a true talent that you are too wise to abuse. And because of that, you will always be desirable. So when you wear out one woman, there will be another who wants to taste it, who wants to be next to someone like you. So you will never have to earn a woman, and you will never appreciate one.
In one of the intentional anachronisms in which Martin delights, and which are probably the most important source of humor in the show, it is Germaine who predicts the shape of the coming century — large passenger airplanes, computer data storage, smoking bans in bars, the Beatles, and that the city of Hiroshima will be completely modernized. Poor Freddy, on the other hand, is reduced to predicting a century of peace led by Germany and the military preeminence of France. Fischer’s Freddy, a working stiff with seemingly little imagination, nevertheless endears himself to Germaine with an occasional insight, which Fischer delivers with the same matter-of-factness with which he deals with daily business at the bar.
For all its palaver and all its sometimes labored anachronisms, the primary delight of the play — certainly of this production — is the bevy of character roles surrounding the leads. In addition to Germaine and Freddy, we have Gaston (Joe LeBlanc), an aging barfly with a weak bladder and a robust ability to imagine trysts he can no longer realize. We have the art dealer Sagot (based on a historical character), played by Bill Byrnes as a hale-and-hearty fellow who yields to no one in his admiration for the profit potential of paintings. Even more commercially oriented is Schmendiman (John Totten), a booster of uncertain enterprises who would be at home in any Chamber of Commerce meeting. There are the women who are drawn like moths to the flames of Picasso and Einstein: Suzanne (Melissa Dunlop), who Picassco picked up and quickly discarded; and the worldly Countess (Patricia Beaubrun-Reese) who Einstein takes bar-hopping. And finally there is the unnamed “Visitor” (Ian Burns) who, complete with blue suede shoes and swiveling hips, drops in from later in the 20th century to teach the budding geniuses a thing or two about music and the power of celebrity. All the supporting performances are lively and credible, not to mention a great deal of fun.
VTC’s performance space in the Vienna Community Center is not among best equipped in the area, so the success of the technical side of the production was particularly pleasing. Stacy King’s lighting design was strong throughout, but shone especially in a scene in which, as the Einstein, Picasso, and the Visitor note, the roof is gone and millions of stars have come out. The entire theater for a moment becomes part of the starry night as the characters stand in awe. John Vasko’s and Mary MacFarlane’s set uses curved-edge panels for the flats that make up the bar’s walls, going for an effective suggestion of the lines of the period’s art rather than for a realistic representation of the actual Lapin Agile. Most of the picture frames on the walls are empty, hinting perhaps at anticipation of art still to come. Eva Sanchez’s costumes were well suited to the various characters; glamorous for the Countess, slovenly for Gaston, coquettish for Suzanne, and so forth. Steve Martin probably would have enjoyed the off-beat natty outfit selected for Einstein, however unlikely it is that the real Einstein would have been caught dead in such a get-up.
Martin’s script is uneven, intermittently humorous and tedious. But the performances at VTC make the evening a worthwhile entertainment.
Luckily for us, Steve Martin is a jack-of-all trades. He is a comedian, an actor, a musician, and a writer of stand-up, screenplays, essays, children’s books, novels, plays and music. He has received Emmys, Grammys, The Disney Legend Award, Kennedy Center Honors and The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. He is the creative father of a large family of literary and musical progeny. Like all parents, he has a “parent” arsenal of games, he uses to entertain and amuse when stuck in waiting rooms or confined during long car trips. With nothing tangible in hand, he incites us to use our imaginations. What do you spy with your little eye? How is eating ice cream different from eating lemons? If you could have any one of these, which would you choose? If Santa Claus and Batman went on vacation together, where would they go? Or rather, what would Einstein and Picasso talk about if they sat down at your table in a Paris bar? Hang on, and join us as Papa Steve leads us in one wild and crazy game of “what if.”
Photos by Matthew Randall/Allrand Photography
- Freddy: Stu Fischer
- Gaston: Joseph LeBlanc
- Germaine: Annie Ermlick
- Einstein: David Carter
- Suzanne: Melissa Dunlap
- Sagot: Bill Byrnes
- Picasso: Robert King
- Schmendiman: John Totten
- The Female Admirer: Melissa Dunlap
- A Visitor: Ian Burns
- Producer: John Ingargiola
- Director: Patricia Boswell Kallman
- Production/Stage Manager: Mary MacFarlane
- VTC Board Liaison: Denise Perrino
- Lighting Designer: Stacy King
- Master Electrician: Tom Epps
- Sound Designer: Ben Allen
- Set Designers: John Vasko, Mary MacFarlane
- Master Carpenter: John Vasko
- Costume Designer: Eva Sanchez
- Set Painting: Mary MacFarlane, Ian Burns, Melissa Dunlap
- Run Crew: Carol Frysinger, Angelena Le Blanc
- Set Construction Crew: John Vasko, Roy Kallman, Ken Nuss, Sally Ann Flores, Kieth Flores, Mary MacFarlane, John Ingargiola, Eric Storck
- Set Painting Crew: Stu Fischer, Patricia Beaubrun Reese, John Totten, Mimi Totten, Joseph LeBlanc, Angelena LeBlanc, Roy Kallman, Sally Ann Flores, Kieth Flores, John Ingargiola, Pat Kallman
- Photographer: Matthew Randall
- Program Design: Jessie Roberts
- Light Board Operators: Kimberly Crago, Bill Mullins, Adrian Steel
- Sound Board Operator: John Ingargiola
Disclaimer: Vienna Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. VTC also purchased advertising on the ShowBizRadio web site, which did not influence this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9834.
Bob Ashby has been an active participant in the Washington-area community theater scene since his arrival in town in 1975.