Friday, April 24, 2009

Stoppard goes pop!

The talented cast of Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Photos by Andrew Brilliant.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then Tom Stoppard may be our most fawned-over playwright. Or at least it seems that way in Boston these days. For fast on the heels of Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy (still running, in a sharp production from the Publick Theater) comes Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, essentially a pop version of Stoppard's Travesties, at the New Rep through May 10. Travesties, as you may recall, punctured modernism by positing an imaginary encounter between Joyce, Lenin and Tristan Tzara (the founder of Dada). Martin's Picasso, however, is hardly so pointed, nor so pointy-headed. The SNL star has dumbed down his cast list to the awareness level of his SNL fans: he slams together Picasso, Einstein, and (wait for it) Elvis in a tiny Paris bar in 1904. Because, as you must agree, all three of those dudes were totally awesome and like defined the twentieth century.

Luckily, Martin's not as dumb as he takes his audience to be - there are plenty of laughs in Picasso, some of them quite clever, and the whole effort has a goofy likeability about it, even if Martin demonstrates, in his big debut as a playwright, that he is, instead, a master of the sketch. (Only this time a very long, extended sketch.) Picasso keeps stopping and starting over, and finds time for lengthy gags and sequences that pay off in only a single punchline. But you don't much mind (at least until Elvis shows up) because Martin does toss off a good number of funny wisecracks, and every now and then the show stops dead for a stretch of top-drawer dramatic writing (as in the barista's deadpan put-down of Picasso, here just about perfectly put over by the reliable Marianna Bassham).

To be fair, there is an actual idea or two kicking around in this show. But then again, to be honest, Martin doesn't really honor them, and most of them are pretty silly anyway. His best gambit is the introduction of "Schmendiman" (Dennis Trainor), a blowhard who imagines he's changed history (but of course has done anything but, except in one hilarious, minor way). Ridiculous as he is, Schmendiman's self-confidence does tease us into wondering what precisely makes some ideas last, while others don't - and how, at the time, anyone can tell the difference between the two. But the reverse logic of Martin's answer to this question - that somehow the great ideas are being transmitted back from the future - is just dopey, and an obvious sop to the audience. And he plays fast and loose with much of his historical material - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, for example, shows up three years early (before eventually sinking on the Titanic, as I recall!) and Einstein often chats up the General Theory of Relativity, when he was working on the Special Theory at the time.

Neil A. Casey and Scott Sweatt go at it as Marianna Bassham looks on.

Okay, obviously Picasso at the Lapin Agile is designed for people who know a lot more about Elvis than they do about those wild and ka-razy guys, Picasso and Einstein. But I'll give Martin this much - there's a small dramatic spine to his long-form sketch that director Daniel Gidron doesn't quite do justice. Martin hints at the ghost of a dramatic arc in the light conflict between Einstein's quiet, eccentric confidence (he's as yet unknown) and Picasso's insecure, ego-centric celebrity (he's just becoming known) that the New Rep cast doesn't really pick up on. Instead, they concentrate on delivering the jokes - which they do, to near-perfection. Gidron demonstrated his skill at the mechanics of farce in last fall's November at the Lyric (which was mysteriously ignored come award-time), and Picasso proves that he hasn't lost his agile touch: each giggle, chuckle and laugh lands precisely where it's supposed to.

Of course no farce can crackle without the kind of crack cast found here. Besides Bassham (who's in fine form throughout), there are nicely-scaled supporting turns from Paul Farwell and Owen Doyle, as well as a hammily charismatic one from Scott Severance as Picasso's actual art dealer, Sagot (who has somehow gotten his hands on a tiny version of Matisse's Luxe, Calme e Volupté) and a wittily sultry one from Stacy Fisher as Picasso's latest conquest. Neil A. Casey brings his usual bright comic flair to Einstein (although as I said, I longed for a bit more quietly eccentric assurance). Meanwhile, as Picasso, Scott Sweatt doesn't have the technical maturity of many in the cast, but holds his own through high energy and constant comic attack. And as Elvis, Christopher James Webb is good enough to almost make you forgive Martin for this last, dumb gambit. Cristina Tedesco's set design is certainly functional, but could be a tad dingier, methinks, but I have to throw a bouquet to costume designer France Nelson McSherry, who in her dress designs for Fisher gives a witty nod to Picasso's rose period, even if Martin skips it.


  1. I sorta take offense to the high art/low art divide in this play. Yes, this play is injected with Steve Martin silliness, but it's not like farces of past and present are any more or less silly than this show. It seems to me that the only real thing making this pop/low-culture is Steve Martin's movie/tv/stand-up history. I do think Travesties is the better play, but I don't thing one is "higher" than another, or that one is "more stupid" and more disrespectful than another.

  2. Feel free to take offense, but rest assured the high/low divide is one of the animating principles of this blog. And while I'm aware that Picasso at the Lapin Agile is intentionally "stoopid," I'm afraid it's also plain old "stupid."