“Two geniuses walk into a bar,” quips director Andrew Gall. It sounds like a joke, but it happens to be the premise of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the play Gall is currently directing for Highland Repertory Theatre.
“We wanted to do something funny, yet something in our niche,” Gall explains. “Something contemporary, a little bit edgy — I don’t want to use the word avant, but … “
Highland Rep, however, has made a name for itself with dark plays like Stop Kiss — which takes a hard look at homophobia — and the classic Les Liaisons Dangereuses, about sex and mind games among 18th-century French aristocracy. In fact, Gall points out that Picasso is the company’s first play in which no one gets killed. (Not yet, anyway. The director admits that making their way around Picasso‘s wildly angular set — designed by Jerry Pope with the Cubist master in mind — is an “imaginative” challenge for his actors.)
Weighing in at less than 70 pages in script form (about an hour-and-a-half in the theater, with no intermission), Picasso is the sort of compact farce only a comic genius like Steve Martin could pull off.
That’s right — actor, writer and director Steve Martin, the guy who created the King Tut skit on Saturday Night Live. Of course, he’s also responsible for the fluffier likes of Roxanne and L.A. Story.
“[Martin] has a really unusual sense of humor; his perspective is unique,” muses Gall. “All of his characters are sort of ne’er-do-wells who, through circumstance, find themselves at the center of something larger than themselves.”
Here are a few things you might not have known about the guy who starred in the cult comedy The Jerk and such recent farces as Bringing Down the House: He’s at once an avid art collector, an uncloseted banjo player and an amateur astronomer. Which might explain the vivid chaos behind Picasso.
“[The play] is interesting because it deals with something we don’t usually think about — creativity and the future,” Gall explains.
Back to those other geniuses: It’s Paris in 1904, and, as Martin notes in the script, “One year later, Albert Einstein published the Special Theory of Relativity. Three years later, Pablo Picasso painted ‘Les Demoiselles D’Avignon.'” But when the masterminds enter the Lapin Agile, they’re just two unknowns: a 25-year-old Einstein (played by Sage Crum) and Picasso (Chris Allison), who is two years Einstein’s junior.
The script, Gall maintains, is an actor’s showcase: “When [Highland Rep] started talking about [staging] Picasso, all the actors were coming to me and saying you’ve got to do this,” he reveals.
Kermit Brown, who plays 60-something barfly Gaston, agrees that being in a comedy is a treat, though he notes: “Comedy is harder than drama. Timing is everything.”
“From a craft standpoint,” Gall concurs, “it’s harder to be deliberately funny than to be pensive and brooding. But there isn’t that much that separates comedy from tragedy — think of situation comedies. It’s funny when it happens to the Huxtables, but if you were going through the same thing at home with your teenager, without a laugh track … “
He continues: “This play isn’t like that. It isn’t situational. It owes a lot to vaudeville.”
Which means that Martin takes liberties. Lots of them. There’s a scene where the group at the bar poses for a photo. The camera is a period piece of equipment, but when Picasso asks the photographer where he got it, the reply is, “I bought it from a Japanese tourist.”
Can you hear the rim shot?
And then Schmendiman, a character who suffers from the delusion that he’s the third genius of the bunch, “discovers” the handiness of the word “cheese” while taking a photo.
Yes, there’s plenty of cheese here. Indeed, Gall likens the light script to “a great cheesecake … there’s not much to it, but it’s sweet and delicious, and you want to order it again.”
And though Picasso‘s comedy hinges on its famous characters’ future accomplishments, the play’s larger appeal owes a lot to its famous creator’s comedic past.
“It’s like a long Saturday Night Live sketch, except very well thought out … [like] SNL in the ’70s,” says Gall.
“When it was cool,” he explains. “When they didn’t have to resort to fart jokes to be funny.”
[A silent art auction to benefit Highland Repertory Theatre runs concurrently with Picasso at the Lapin Agile and will be held in the lower lobby of Diana Wortham Theatre. Bidding begins at 7 p.m. each night of the show’s run. Admission is free. Call 257-4530 for more information.]
Picasso at the Lapin Agile runs Thursday, Aug. 21 through Saturday, Aug. 23 and Thursday, Aug. 28 through Saturday, Aug. 30 at Diana Wortham Theatre. Curtain time is 8 p.m. each night. Admission is $20/adults, $18/seniors and students ($10/student-rush tickets are available one hour before each show). All Thursday-night tickets cost $10. For more information, call (828) 664-0021, 257-4530 or go to www.highlandrep.org.