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Einstein Duels with Picasso in Steve Martin's Absurdist Comedy On Science, Art, Sex and More at the Outset of the 20th Century

Donald Gilpin

In a dazzling display of fictional history with a heavy dose of Steve Martin's trademark wit and humor, Picasso at the Lapin Agile imagines a meeting between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in 1904, one year before Einstein published the special theory of relativity and three years before Picasso painted Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. The two young men discuss art, science, women, sex and the future, as they compete for preeminence at the dawn of the modern era.

A long, single act (about 75 minutes), the 1994 play, running for one more weekend at Princeton Summer Theater, is a masterpiece of comic inventiveness and absurdity, set amidst the colorful surroundings and characters of the Paris bar known as the Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit).

The youthful PST ensemble, under the direction of Marisol Rosa-Shapiro, is perfectly suited to bring to life the twenty-five-year-old Einstein, the twenty-three-year-old Picasso, and the other vibrant young characters preparing, 100 years ago, to shape the 20th century in surprising, shocking ways.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile spoofs men and women and their relationships, theater, art, science and celebrity, but at the same time, even with the constant absurdity that keeps the audience laughing from start to finish, it delivers an inspirational tribute to the genius of Einstein and Picasso and their influence in transforming the modern world.

As a surprise visitor (a time traveler from the second half of the 20th century whose identity will not be revealed here) states in an eloquent toast to the 20th century: "This century, the accomplishments of artists and scientists outshone the accomplishments of politicians and governments."

Ms. Rosa-Shapiro's shrewdly cast, carefully rehearsed ensemble of ten, embraces this sophisticated, sometimes silly, sometimes scholarly material with energy and panache. Mr. Martin's script reflects his background as stand-up comedian and Saturday Night Live "wild and crazy guy," as well as his earlier college experience as a philosophy major and aspiring professor of philosophy.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile, inspired by a Picasso painting which depicts a scene at the famous Lapin Agile in the Montmartre section of Paris, delivers a steady stream of comic banter, surprising one-liners and captivating monologues blended with much thought-provoking material on the nature of fame, genius, creativity and the great achievements of the 20th century. Ms. Rosa-Shapiro and company make the most of all of the above.

Traditional concerns of plot, theme, and character development hardly seem relevant here where the basic premise is so fascinating, the comedy hilarious and the whimsical energy so engaging and enjoyable. The ideas flow, not deeply but profusely. They dazzle and delight.

Kyle Booten as Einstein and Jed Peterson as Picasso lead the PST company. Mr. Booten, wide-eyed and energetic, ably embodies the character of the spirited physicist/mathematician, as he assiduously observes and takes notes on the curious events in the bar, or solves computing problems instantaneously or vigorously matches wits and words with Picasso and others. Mr. Peterson's womanizing Picasso emphasizes the brash self-assurance of youthful celebrity, as he basks in the adulation of his female admirers and also reveals an amusingly, idiosyncratic human side beneath the façade of the great artist. Both actors are focused in creating these characters and adept in their comic timing.

Carly Voigt as Suzanne, Picasso's young conquest, leads the female contingent here, creating a clever, sharp, three-dimensional character. Suzanne arrives at the Lapin Agile in search of the charismatic artist, proceeds to charm the assembled company, before sparring with Picasso himself.

Jacquelyn Landgraf convincingly portrays the down-to-earth barmaid Germaine, who seems to know more – including how to get what she wants – than all the geniuses on stage. Amy Widdowson contributes two strong supporting roles, as a charming Countess and consort of Einstein and as a (not-so-admiring) "admirer" of Picasso.

Rob Walsh is an articulate, lively bartender Freddy, romancing Germaine and more than able to match wits with the protagonists. Timothy McDonough makes the one stretch in age here to play the wry, mannered older gentleman Gaston, who spends much of his time, and creates many laughs, on his frequent trips to the water closet. Jonathan Bulava is Picasso's prosperous, acquisitive, elegantly attired art dealer, who opines humorously on the difficulties of selling paintings of Jesus, sheep, or male nudes.

John Elliott delivers a memorable, high-energy cameo as the intrusive Schendiman, competing with his ludicrous inventions to become the third genius in attendance; and Craig Jorczak, as the Visitor, appears surrealistically from the future to cap off the incongruous absurdities and bring the evening's events to a dynamic conclusion.

David Bengali's detailed, vividly reddish set and lighting design – with various moving parts and special effects to accommodate the strange surrealism of the final scene – effectively creates the world of the Montmartre bar. Meryl Pressman's skillfully, painstakingly designed costumes are excellent in enhancing both characterization and historical verisimilitude for this eccentric assortment of denizens of the Lapin Agile.

The genius of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which originally debuted at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company before moving on to run for ten months Off-Broadway in New York in 1995-96, consists of a flair for exploration of substantive historical, aesthetic, and scientific ideas and at the same time an insistence on keeping its characters and audiences grounded in the humor and absurdity of the real world. Picasso and Einstein may philosophize rhapsodically:

Picasso: So you're saying you bring a beautiful idea into being?
Einstein: Yes. We create a system and see if the facts can fit it.
P: So you're not just describing the world as it is?
E: No! We are creating a new way of looking at the world!
P: So you're saying you dream the impossible and put it into effect?
E: Brother!
P: Brother! (They hug.)

But Germaine, the pragmatic barmaid, is the one who best knows how the world really works, and doesn't hesitate to tell them: "Oh, please. You two are spouting a lot of bullshit and I say the only reason you got into physics and art in the first place is to meet girls."

The PST production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile is an official event on the "Think Einstein" calendar celebrating the 100th anniversary of Einstein's "Miracle Year," when he published his theory of relativity. Einstein came to Princeton from his native Germany in 1933, joined the school of mathematics of the Institute for Advanced Studies, and lived in Princeton until his death in 1955. The Historical Society of Princeton has sponsored an exhibit in the theater lobby about Einstein's years in Princeton.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile will run through July 10, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night performances at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday performances at 2 p.m. Call (609) 258-7062 for tickets or visit www.princeton summertheater.org.


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