A Pigment of the Imagination

As the characters in Picasso at the Lapin Agile toast the first decade of the Twentieth Century, Martin makes the point that science and art will soon eclipse politics and religion as the shapers of world events. Both Picasso and Einstein fit the bill as historical and cultural icons, yet Martin can't help taking a shot at the current propensity to confuse genius with celebrity.

The comedy taps into the Zeitgeist when a visitor (James Kruk) drops by the bar wearing blue suede shoes and swiveling his hips. Bells ring, smoke flows, and Kevin Rigdon's exquisitely subtle lighting design explodes upon his arrival. Obviously sharing Einstein's view of the relative boundaries of time, Elvis arrives shortly after Freddy's prophecy that genius comes in threes.

As it turns out, the King has a rival for the third spot. The improbably named Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Michael Oosterom) travels from bar to bar, proclaiming that his inventions will change the world. Wearing loud plaid knickers, a matching vest, and a bow tie, Schmendiman rattles off lunatic schemes and sends the show into vaudeville territory. The fact that Elvis and Schmendiman could be considered geniuses when there were folks like Marie Curie, Henry Ford, and Thomas Alva Edison to choose from in 1904 underscores the point that Martin's play is one long joke about two men in a bar. Quite simply put, Elvis is the funniest visual punch line.

As all the characters describe what they envision of the Twentieth Century, the juxtapositions of ridiculous and sublime recall Martin's old routines. But any vintage Martin is worth a laugh. As a screenwriter (Roxanne, A Simple Twist of Fate, and L.A. Story), short story author (collected in Cruel Shoes), and now a playwright (the recent Wasp, Patter for the Floating Lady and The Zig Zag Woman), he has proven he knows his way around a joke.

There are plenty of them in Picasso. Einstein, for example, shows his future professorial side by hysterically dissecting a joke at great length to explain exactly why it's funny. Even better, he announces in a heated moment that the speed of light will always remain a constant 186,282 miles per second; then, smacking his forehead, he says, "I can't believe I just gave away the ending of my book."

No gag writer could ask for a better ensemble than the touring company of Picasso at the Lapin Agile. All of its members understand the concept of timing in a way that would make Einstein proud. Schulman, in particular, plays the love-struck Suzanne with winning devotion only to show up later in two cameo roles as Einstein's red-headed date and a Schmendiman groupie. While each of the cast comically nails his or her character to perfection, Patricia Zipprodt's tailored costumes just as effectively reflect the time period.

In one of his old routines, Martin used to say that comedy is not pretty. Well, in the case of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, it's not profound either. Just very, very funny.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
Written by Steve Martin; directed by Randall Arney; with Mark Nelson, Paul Provenza, Susannah Schulman, Jim Mohr, Ian Barford, and Kimberly King. Through March 15 at the Parker Playhouse (954-763-2444), then March 24 through April 5 at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse (561-659-3310).

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