I saw a production of funnyman Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile a handful of years back, after which my date pointed out that Martin has written three whole 'nother plays besides. She made the remark in Martin's defense; publishers must like him, she reasoned, because his scripts keep finding their way into print. Theater genius that I am, I responded with a look that only her comment could invite.
“I got two words for ya,” I said: “Neil Simon.” He, after all, has about 30 plays out there, each one more unfinished and problem-plagued than the next.
Fortunately for Simon—and for Martin, who's sometimes cut from the same cloth—production values trump scripts, at least publicly. Even so, that's where the Lapin Agile as mounted by New Village Arts runs into problems. There's a decent concept afoot here, but this group plays it vintage Steve Martin, forfeiting his reflective side for the sight-gag stuff everybody's come to know and, for better or worse, love. And like Simon, Martin backs into his characters, giving too much stage time to some and too little to others. Put 'em together, and you have not so much a play as a trade show, a nefarious collection of stock creations breathlessly one-upping one another for the highest bidder's favor.
I applaud Steve for thinking outside the box amid his premise—a 1904 meeting in a legendary Paris bar between young Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, each convinced of his stellar future place in history. The setting's certainly right; 1904 saw a big World's Fair in St. Louis, one renowned for its exhibits on the 19th century's industrial revolution. Art and science would hop into the same bed at this event; surely, two titans like Al and Pabs (Tom Zohar and Tim Parker) symbolize that ideal. They read because Martin's drawn them squarely at each other's throats, and director Dana Case coaxes appropriately shrill turns from both actors.
After that, even the characters' subtleties are barely readable subtleties in the extreme. The more overt stuff (like the clip-clopping of shoes and a patron inventor's wardrobe choice) smacks of stand-up bathroom humor when simple stream-of-consciousness comportment (perhaps what Martin intended) would do nicely. We hear and feel details of patron Suzanne's love life ad nauseam; as portrayed by Amanda Morrow, Suzanne's come-hither gaze is so relentless it eventually sticks to her face. Cranky Gaston (Eddie Yaroch) is called on to take a pee when the action sags (which is frequent); Freddy (Brian Abraham) and Germaine (Kristianne Kurner), the couple that run the Lapin Agile, never get the chance to establish themselves as the bar's authority figures, both because Martin miswrites the roles and Case misunderstands them.
And what do these and assorted other characters have to do with Martin's premise? Uh—nothing, really, any more than Tim Wallace's stencil of a set. Everybody—everybody—needs to take a deep breath, look for the interesting parts of this play (of which there are many) and refine their performances accordingly. It'll help close the gap between belly-laugh humor and intellectual curiosity so evident here. And if Neil Simon's any kind of a man, he'll take the hint.
This review is based on the opening-night production of Nov. 14. Picasso at the Lapin Agile runs through Dec. 6 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787 State St. in Carlsbad. $22-$30. www.newvillagearts.org.