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Theater Review: "Picasso At The Lapin Agile"

From left - Philippe Bowgen as Pablo Picasso and Justin Long as Albert Einstein
Photo credit:
Jim Cox

Did Picasso and Einstein ever meet in a bar? Probably not, but that conjecture is the setup for Steve Martin’s “Picasso At The Lapin Agile,” playing through March 12 at The Old Globe. Barry Edelstein directs. But instead of a joke, the play becomes an extended riff on art, science, marketing and sex.

The time is 1904; the place, a Paris bar called the Lapin Agile, and Einstein (Justin Long) and Picasso (Philippe Bowgen) are both in their 20s. It’ll be another year before Einstein writes about relativity and three before Picasso makes it big with “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

The Lapin Agile, run by barkeep Freddy (Donald Faison) and his waitress girlfriend Germaine (Luna Vélez), is refuge for several other quirky characters as well.

There’s Gaston (Hal Linden), 60ish, with a prostate problem; Suzanne (Liza Lapira), who has known Einstein “twice” (“I held off for seconds,” she says); art dealer Sagot (Ron Orbach), who wants to get his hands on a Picasso or two; Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (Marcel Spears), an inventor of dubious ability; a time-traveling Visitor with blue suede shoes (Kevin Hafso-Koppman); and two other female characters played by Lapira.

A painting of sheep in a field over the bar provides impetus for a discussion of art, as Picasso leaves his blue period and begins to step into cubism.

Sagot riffs about what artistic subjects do and don’t sell; Schmendiman asserts that the shortest distance between two points is a foot and a half, and pontificates about the difference between talent and genius. And there’s a long riff about alphabet-shaped pies, apropos of nothing at all.

But this is Paris, where of course life ultimately comes down to sex, with Gaston lamenting its loss and the others on the make. There’s plenty of talk about that too.

“Picasso At The Lapin Agile” premiered in Chicago 24 years ago, and unfortunately the piece hasn’t aged well, despite Martin’s occasional updates.

The humor is mostly corny and on the level of a TV sitcom.

Gaston’s repeated dashes to the bathroom lose their comedic impact early on, for example.

Despite that, this is a top-notch cast of actors well-known in other venues.

My favorite is Luna Vélez, perhaps because she seems the most, well, human, and doesn’t get boxed into many of the corny jokes. But all of them – Donald Faison, Hal Linden, Justin Long, Liza Lapira, Ron Orbach, Philippe Bowgen and Marcel Spears – are excellent.  

I’ll give a special shout-out to local favorite Kevin Hafso-Koppman, who plays the Visitor with great humor and panache.

By far the best thing about this show is John Lee Beatty’s spiffy pink-toned set, which seems almost suspended in air like a bar in the sky.

The rest of the tech team is A level as well: Katherine Ross’ period costumes are perfect, and Russell H. Champa’s lighting excellent. Lindsay Jones contributes both original music and a fine sound design.

“Picasso At The Lapin Agile” offers a great set, fine actors and some funny lines. It seems too long to me, but much hilarity was heard in my audience. 

The details

“Picasso At The Lapin Agile” plays through March 12, 2017 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org