Saturday Night Dead

A woman in Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile makes this comment about the famous painter: "He says that occasionally there is a 'Picasso' and he is him." You can substitute the word genius for Picasso and get the sense of what this phrase means. The comedy appears to be saying something about the way one man or woman utterly changes history just by showing up at the right time with the right idea. After all, the show is set in the real-life Paris bar that, in 1904, was a second home to both the artist and his high-wattage contemporary Albert Einstein.

You could also insert the name Steve Martin in place of Picasso in this phrase and get to the root of the specious artistry often attributed to the play. The appeal of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which is now running at the Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, is less about the nature of creativity and all about the marquee power of the person who wrote it.

Martin, a multifaceted actor/comedian/essayist and genuinely wild-and-crazy guy, may indeed be a genius. Not every actor can play Saturday Night Live and then shift gears to master Samuel Beckett and David Mamet. (Martin's last major screen performance was this past year in Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner.) He's also a terrific screenwriter. But he is not a consistently successful playwright, as the incredibly lame Picasso at the Lapin Agile attests.

The work, which premiered at Chicago's acclaimed Steppenwolf Theater in 1993 and then won the Outstanding Off-Broadway Play and Best Playwright awards from the New York Outer Critics Circle for its 1996 New York run, is little more than a series of one-liners barely connected by suggestions of characters. Want a sample of the humor? "Men are always talking about their 'things' as though it's not them," grumbles one of the women in the Lapin Agile bar, as if we hadn't heard that observation a zillion times before. Even when the jokes reflect the personalities of the characters -- as when Einstein comments that Picasso's estimate of the number of stars in the sky ("millions") is "way low" -- the gaffes are trapped in their own universe, one that has nothing to do with the rest of the play.

A deliberately surreal effect? Who can say? But any attempt to follow an actual idea from start to finish is futile. This botched dramatic reality is particularly frustrating for the audience at the Actors' Playhouse, because the production features a great deal of local acting talent and is crisply directed by artistic director David Arisco. From Bill Hindman, who plays an affably dense bar patron, and Arland Russell as Picasso's art dealer, to the deft Kim Ostrenko as the bartender's wife, the minor characters acquit themselves wonderfully. But the more the cast digs in and tries to establish roles, the more the script defeats them. Characters don't have to be the driving force of comedy, of course, but without them or ideas, there's very little for us to hang on to.

Leads Paul Tei as Picasso and Paul Louis as Einstein are charismatic actors, both talented enough to squeeze the most potential out of the weakest wordplay. That attribute helps, particularly in the show's one almost-funny scene, when Picasso and Einstein engage in a mock duel, drawing pencils instead of swords. They challenge each other to prove the lasting impact of the "drawings" in their respective fields of art and mathematical equations. Not exactly a laugh riot, I know, but as the bartender at the Lapin Agile puts it: "No pun intended, no pun achieved."

Tom Wahl gives a valiant performance as Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, the goofball who's mistaken for the third part of a triptych of brilliant men. (Is it just coincidence that, if you mumble it, "Schmendiman" sounds suspiciously like "Steve Martin"?) This character exists to drive home the idea that talent is commonplace but genius is rare. "Creation is easy," Schmendiman says. "Just follow the path of least resistance." In offering us this bundle of tossed-off jokes, the playwright has apparently followed his own character's advice.

How did Lapin Agile become so popular? It's a mystery to me. The show has been produced all over the world, and the seats are barely cold from runs at two Broward venues last February. Lapin Agile is anchored to an interesting idea: Einstein and Picasso meet in a Paris watering hole just a few years shy of the creation of Picasso's Cubist masterpiece Les Demoiselles D'Avignon and the publication of Einstein's The Special Theory of Relativity.

The notion of highly intelligent and influential folks bouncing up against each in a small indoor space is almost always engaging, particularly when Tom Stoppard thrust James Joyce, Karl Marx, and Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara together in a European library two decades ago in Travesties. But even Stoppard, a writer with more at stake than Martin, couldn't take that high concept one step further or make anything substantial of it.

Martin, however, isn't really interested in a comedy of ideas. Rather, he's toying with the popular images of genius, and the result is something akin to Michael Jordan's attempt to play professional baseball. The enterprise stirs up interest, but ultimately the endeavor is disappointing, even a little embarrassing. Martin is no neophyte to writing, as anyone who reads The New Yorker knows. (His essays were recently collected in Pure Drivel.) His screenplays for Roxanne (1987) and L.A. Story (1991) gave us two of the most effervescent romantic comedies since the films of Ernst Lubitsch.

But considering the vaudeville origins of Martin's stand-up schtick (the arrow through the head, the physical contortions), you might think he could create something that plays better onstage. It's one thing to throw disparate puns together in a humor column in The New Yorker a la S.J. Perelman. It's altogether another undertaking to give those clever observations legs and faces and ask them to hold our attention.

Still, I don't think Martin is the one who is mistaking the range of his talents. He knows he's a Schmendiman and happy for it. Unlike Picasso and Einstein, who debate the merits of their drawings, Martin would probably agree that his play is just a doodle. The theater producers who foist this second-rate work off as first-class goods are the ones trying to make it something it's not.

Stage Whispers
I was also underwhelmed by Monsters of Grace, the new collaboration between Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, which recently touched down at the Gusman Center as part of its 33-city U.S. tour. I'm a fan of Robert Wilson's theater spectacles as well as his sculpture, but I came away from Monsters -- described by its creators as an essay on the intersection of the human and the divine -- thinking that the artist had been cowed by the new work's animation technology. Or falsely seduced by it. (Glass's score, on the other hand, is the warmest offering to come out of his studio in recent memory.)

At any rate, throughout Monsters, in which commercial Hollywood animators Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak took Wilson's images and made a kind of three-dimensional slide show, the artist's personality is virtually absent. Only a few fleeting seconds of the 70-minute evening featured the emotional-psychological-subliminal tug of war that marked Einstein on the Beach (1976) or any of Wilson's lesser-known theatrical adaptations. Monsters (visually trite, crudely executed, badly paced) is less compelling than the average MTV music video or theme-park flight simulator.

Somehow, when working in the more traditional mediums of theater and sculpture, Wilson is forced to reinvent the process. No one else has brought to modern theater the notion of movement as a visual element the way Wilson has. Even in his still works, his sculptures of chairs, for instance, the artist designs for the subconscious as well as the eye. At best Wilson is in control of his creative elements. In Monsters he's pitifully under their command.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
Written by Steve Martin. Directed by David Arisco. With Paul Louis, Paul Tei, Bill Hindman, Kris Johnson, Andrew J. Pond, Kim Ostrenko, Marcy Ruderhausen, Arland Russell, and Tom Wahl. Through February 14. Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293.

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