It’s 1904 in Paris, and the setting is a real bar—the Lapin Agile—but the dramatic scenario is pure fiction.
The multitalented Steve Martin has imagined a play in which two towering figures of the 20th century meet and converse. Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein share their thoughts, and, all the while, we see the parallels between artistic and scientific creativity. This never happened in real life, but what if it had? This is Martin’s setup, and the setting itself is perfect, with an old Parisian bar and a landscape painting dominating the scene.
The set is great, the lighting is fine, the costumes work well. For this play, it really comes down to what kind of humor you have. I didn’t really get why Albert Einstein (Dylan Goodwin) and Pablo Picasso (Joseph Castillo-Midyett) had accents, and no one else does. We are in Paris, right? And I understand how clever it might have been in the 1990s to have really meta lines reminding the audience that this is just a play, it’s not real, etc. etc., but that kind of seems old and dated and didn’t really add anything to the power of the play. What is the point of that—to make it more believable? Well, that’s not gonna happen when there is time travel, anachronisms everywhere one turns, and preachy speeches about sex and feminism. So, we get it, with or without any metafictional gestures, which get old.
Imagining Einstein at a more vulnerable stage in life (one year before he published his theory of special relativity) and Picasso before he painted the controversial Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, we observe Einstein interacting with Freddy (Shawn Hamilton) and his lover, Germaine (Elizabeth Bunch), who run the bar. But the first customer is Gaston, excellently played by Torrey Hanson, who might have the best comedic timing of the entire cast. He also has some of the best one-liners, including, “I am just recently old.” Although not a major character, his quips keep things lively throughout the show.
Melissa Pritchett is also entertaining in multiple roles, including that of Suzanne, a woman who pines for Picasso after a fling even though she knows of his reputation as a well-known womanizer. She is quite humorous, as when she confesses that when it came to Picasso, “I held out for seconds.” I don’t know how she changed costumes so fast, but it was impressive.
For my money, the star of this show is Dylan Godwin as Einstein. He is funny—but not over-the-top—and completely believable, from his expressions to the way he expresses himself. Although the play is ostensibly more about Picasso, who is “nuts about blue,” this is really Godwin’s stage, and he has a wit about his performance that is absolutely necessary so that this show does not devolve into slapstick or something a bit too absurd. Relatively speaking, he is the performer to watch. Less impressive are Todd Waite (Sagot) and Chris Hutchinson (Schmendiman), who shout their lines to the point that it undercuts the comedic component of what they are saying, although in their defense their roles are problematic and distracting in themselves—a bit too much kitsch without enough payoff. A lot of their lines are just groan-worthy.
There is a lot of big, philosophical talk about how Einstein and Picasso are “not going to so much change the century, but bend it,” kind of like how this play bends the truth for comedic purposes, all of which are not successful. Don’t get me wrong: At a certain point in time, nothing was funnier than Steve Martin’s stand-up and his iconic appearances on Saturday Night Live. But the laughter for this show seems a little forced, depending on your point of view. Although I enjoyed the execution of much of this play, the play itself seems an odd choice for The Alley. Why revive this particular play, which The Alley already did in 1997? And why have such iconic figures that are embedded in our heads and thus that more difficult to play convincingly? The risk is that instead of a play, you have a very long comedy sketch, and that is what Picasso at the Lapin Agile feels like—frothy and maybe a little too light.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile, thru June 3. Tickets from $35. The Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave. 713-220-5700. More info and tickets at alleytheatre.org.