Genius at play

“Draw!” the 20-something Picasso challenges the 20-something Einstein, and the two men back away from each other in OK Corral-style slow motion, until both reach for their …. pencils.

They immediately start scribbling away on tablecloths at the Lapin Agile.

Eventually, Picasso and Einstein hold up the results of their scribbling: a Cubist drawing and the formula E=MC2 “Mine will change the future,” boasts Picasso. “And mine won’t?” counters Einstein.

Now you have the barest taste — a minuscule mouthful, a bite-sized tidbit — of Steve Martin’s award-winning play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, now playing at Asheville Community Theatre. Yes, that’s the Steve Martin — that wild-and-crazy guy who, with this play (his first) won both the Best Play and Best Playwright awards in 1996, from the New York Outer Critics Circle.

In two acts (a fast-paced 90 minutes), Martin takes off from a “what-if?” notion: What if Einstein and Picasso had met in a Paris bar, the Lapin Agile (“nimble rabbit”), in 1904 — the year before Einstein was to publish his famous theory, and three years before Picasso painted “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon” and launched the cubist movement.

“It’s a difficult play to define,” notes director Ron McIntyre-Fender between tech rehearsals — immediately establishing himself as a master of understatement. “It’s a play that breaks molds and traditional forms. Stylistically, there’s everything from standup comedy to absurdist drama to philosophical oration. Steve Martin wanted to be a philosopher, you know. He studied philosophy.”

But he also studied and has practiced comedy for decades, and the dizzying mix that results ranges from the surreal to the absurd to the just plain wacky. Yes, Picasso at the Lapin Agile is often extremely funny, nearly always intelligent, sometimes endearingly awkward — and only occasionally tries too hard: a lot like Martin’s own stand-up performances.

You can imagine Martin thinking something along these lines: OK, you’ve got these two young geniuses striking sparks off each other; it’s art vs. science (lots of scope for philosophy there, not to mention great jokes). You’ve got this bar in Montmartre which Picasso actually used to go to (that’s enough realism; don’t forget the snide jokes about the French). You’ve got this dim-witted bartender, Freddy, and a bar regular, Gaston, to pull off some zingy one-liners (be sure to get in some jokes about old guys). You’ve got a down-to-earth, feminist barmaid who sees things so clearly she can predict the future. Plus, maybe there should be a time traveler, someone from the future (there’s your surrealism, and make it somebody who can get laughs) … and so on.

But what’s the play actually about?, a voice calls from offstage. Maybe it’s a grateful testimonial — from the end of the 20th century to its beginnings. But it’s also partly a roast. “The play truly tells us something that’s reassuring,” is how McIntyre-Fender describes it. “We really did some good things in this century. Science and art accomplished more than politicians and government. We’ve given the world some beauty.

“It’s so hard for us to deal with abstract thought,” continues the director. “We’re so busy balancing our checkbooks and the like. We have to stop and think about these higher ideals — what we give to the world and what we’re here for. And if we can do [that] with comedy, all the better.”

McIntyre-Fender has collected some awards of his own, most notably Best Show and Best Director honors (for Falsettoland at the 1996 American Association of Community Theaters festival).

On the night I visited a rehearsal, with five days to go before opening, the actors waxed enthusiastic about both the play and its characters. Jeff Messer says he finds the role of Einstein especially challenging because, “[I’m] playing an actual historical figure who changed the world. The play catches him and Picasso at the brink of greatness.” His Einstein is charming, witty and sometimes surprisingly self-deprecating — maybe because, during one rehearsal, Messer says he “misquoted the speed of light. Your credibility as Einstein definitely goes right out the window [when that happens].

“I’ve got it down now, though,” he adds. Messer’s a veteran actor and director with the Haywood Arts Repertory Theater. He’s also an accomplished playwright who recently won an award in the Kennedy Center short play competition.

Mark Hanna describes the Picasso he plays as “confident, arrogant, full of sexual energy … but he’s got a heart.” This is Hanna’s debut role “in anything but school plays. I just got up the gumption to come and audition.” On-stage, Hanna’s a tightly wound spring: irrepressible, swaggering and appropriately full of himself. (Offstage, he’s a veterinary assistant at Carolina Pet Care.)

The barmaid, Germaine — who’s on stage throughout most of the play — is played with panache, style and intelligence by Carrie E. Hamilton. Among her character’s coups, she gets to predict a brief craze for pink lawn flamingos — as well as eloquently explaining why Picasso could never win her heart.

Kelly Christianson, as Suzanne (one of Picasso’s conquests) is sensual and winning; her wit packs a wallop.

Some of the play’s funniest moments come from Bernie Hauserman, who plays the flamboyant, flaming art dealer, Sagot. He’s especially adept at explaining why he can’t sell pictures of Jesus, “or of messengers, unless they’re nude.”

Josh Mosher plays the lame-witted Freddy; Erik Pflaumbaum the audience-pleasing messenger from the future; Frank Avery the tiny-bladdered Gaston; Jon Howard an overconfident whirlwind named Schmendiman (Martin in disguise?); Ali Lemort the countess who seduces Einstein, and Dia Morgan an admirer of only certain men of genius.

The simple, evocative set was designed by Richard Seagle, who calls the famous Picasso work in the play’s otherworldly ending “five contorted ladies” (it’s actually the famous “Desmoiselles D’Avignon”). The fine period costumes were designed by Stan Poole, who points out, “Some people think we go out and get [our costumes] at K-Mart: We don’t.”

McIntyre-Fender’s advice for playgoers is simple and heartfelt: “Just let it wash over you. Sit back, and let it happen. Don’t be put off by ‘all this thinking’ — that’s Picasso’s line.”

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