A Pigment of the Imagination

"A man walks into a bar." Stand-up comics have launched into routines with that line so often that it's no surprise comedian-turned-movie actor Steve Martin chose the same setup to fuel the many laughs in his first effort as a playwright. In the case of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the man walking into a Paris bar happens to be Albert Einstein.

The touring production of the successful off-Broadway comedy is currently at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale. At the end of the month, it moves to Palm Beach's Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Martin's what-if tale imagines a meeting between the brilliant physicist who changed our understanding of the world and Pablo Picasso, the innovative Spanish artist who revolutionized the way we view it.

It's 1904; both men are in their twenties and on the threshold of their creative breakthroughs. The future Nobel Prize-winning scientist is one year from publishing five papers about quantum mechanics and his formula establishing that mass is a form of energy: E = mc2. Picasso, meanwhile, is stuck in his Blue Period, a literal reference to the predominant color of those works. In three years he will finish his Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, which will lead other artists to Cubism and the development of the abstract movement.

In his 90-minute play, presented without intermission, Martin adds nothing to our historical knowledge of the pair's early lives. What he does provide is a fun-filled visit with a couple of wild and crazy guys who are just as interested in picking up girls as in changing history. Martin's quirky blend of fantasy and reality is neatly tied together by director Randall Arney, who guided the 1993 Chicago premiere as well as subsequent productions in Los Angeles, San Francisco, off-Broadway, and Tokyo.

Scott Bradley, another veteran of the American productions, is also on hand with a compact yet evocative touring set of mismatched bar tables and stools placed in front of a gleaming dark-wood bar that runs the width of the stage. A sign under the proscenium announces that we are in the Montmartre bistro Lapin Agile, which the real-life Picasso frequented. Short of cash, the young artist once painted a canvas to settle a bar bill there.

On this particular day, a first-time visitor shows up. Einstein (Mark Nelson) is a lowly 25-year-old patent office clerk looking for a beautiful redhead who had promised to meet him at the Bar Rouge. An unlikely ladies' man, the pragmatic Einstein decides he may as well hang out at the Lapin Agile. "I'm a theorist, and the way I see it," he explains to Freddy (Ian Barford), the bar's owner, "there is as much chance of her wandering in here accidentally as there is of her wandering into the Bar Rouge on purpose."

When Freddy and waitress Germaine (Kimberly King) catch him scribbling in a notebook, they peg him for another fledgling novelist and press him for the name of his work. Einstein replies "The Special Theory of Relativity. Catchy, yup?"

In that paper, published in 1905, the real-life Einstein suggested that time and motion are relative to the observer. But as played here, Einstein is a phenomenon from any perspective. Nelson picked up an Obie award for his performance in the New York production, and, on one level, he conveys everything we expect of a young Einstein; he's quixotic and lightning fast. But this tour de force performance also suggests that Einstein was a man who giggled at the thoughts in his head while remaining keenly interested in the people around him; no one can resist his gravitational pull.

Soon Einstein is helping Freddy with the bar accounts, in one case untangling a hilarious word problem involving a wine shipment. He even agrees with the elderly lecher Gaston (Jim Mohr) that all wine should cost the same because it all gets you equally drunk. When Sagot (Ken Grantham), an art dealer, arrives looking to score a few cheap paintings from starving artists, the patrons consider the merits of the dreadful landscape painting behind the bar.

Far from dreadful is the beautiful Suzanne (Susannah Schulman), who, in front of the astonished barflies, changes into a sexy camisole and settles in to wait for Picasso to show. When Einstein asks if she actually knows the painter, she sighs and says, "Twice."

Fascinated by her tales of Picasso's passion for "seeing things that can't be named," Einstein is eager to meet a fellow genius. The feeling turns out to be less than mutual when the 23-year-old Picasso (Paul Provenza) finally arrives, looking for women. Best-known for his stand-up monologues on talk shows, Provenza amusingly plays Picasso as an egotistical Latin lover who uses his artistic abilities as a come-on to seduce Parisian beauties.

Picasso eventually turns his attention to the new competition. He is sure of his place in history and more than a little put off by the spike-haired egghead who believes that science is more important than art. After some verbal jousting, the two square off like Wild West gunslingers and pull pencils out of their pockets yelling, "Draw!" They attack scraps of paper. "This will change the world," Picasso says of his quick sketch. "Oh, and like this won't?" Einstein retorts, his famous formula in hand.

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).