On Stage: Comedic Genius

by Chuck Conconi

Keegan Theatre’s ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile’ evaluates the minds of two geniuses. 

xx (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

Bradley Foster Smith and Amanda Forstrom (Photo by C. Stanley Photography)

It is well known that Pablo Picasso and several late 19th and early 20th century artists like to drink and argue at the Lapin Agile in Montmartre Paris. It doesn’t seem like it would also be a hangout for Albert Einstein, but that doesn’t really matter to comedian and playwright Steve Martin who has Picasso and Einstein engage in a duel of the geniuses there.

As Martin sees it in his sometimes silly, but thoughtful play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” if they didn’t meet at the convivial bar, they should have. Martin is a man who understands genius and arguably is one. He is a comic who has written television scripts, books and plays, including the musical “Bright Star” that has played the Kennedy Center before moving to Broadway. And he plays the banjo.

His “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” is presently playing in the intimate Keegan Theatre. Written in 1993 for the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, Martin has the two creative giants meeting in the bar in 1904 when both men are on the edge of greatness: Einstein, who will shortly publish his stunning Theory of Relativity, and Picasso who is about to create cubism.

The intimacy of the Keegan creates a feeling of being at a side table in the Lapin Agile (it still exists) watching the crazy arguments of the two brilliant men about the significant role each will play in the coming 20th century. Their egos are uncontrollable, but are amusingly modest in the light of the impact they will have in the years that followed.

The 90-minute, without interruption, production, directed by Chris Stezin, all takes place in the Lapin Agile, operated by Freddy (Brandon McCoy) a wise barkeep who operates the place with his girlfriend, Germaine (Allison Leigh Corke). One of the regulars is Gaston (Kevin Adams) an older man with prostate problems, constantly leaving the stage to go to the water closet. Gaston says sex is only a memory, but it is a dominating one.

There is a comfortable seediness to the Lapin Agile as designed by Matthew J. Keenan who also plays Picasso. It looks like a good place to drink. Einstein (Bradley Foster Smith) is just 25 and is still a government clerk at this point, but he knows he will soon make a profound announcement. Picasso is a great womanizer and full of himself with his confident brilliance and attractiveness to women, who to Picasso are sex objects. And even before Picasso arrives at Lapin Agile, Suzanne (Amanda Forstrom) is there expecting to run into the painter. She has recently slept with him and is upset when he later arrives and doesn’t remember her.

But Picasso and Einstein begin debating the value of genius and talent and end up challenging each other to a duel. The weapons of choice are pencils and when they see what the other has scribbled on a piece of paper, they understand that they are both going to shape the 20th century.

There needs to be a third genius and he is a Martin masterful stroke of creativity. The third genius is an unconventional visitor from the future portrayed in a comedic entrance by Mike Kozemchak. It is a somehow clever, appropriate ending that only the agile mind of Steve Martin would come up with.

“Picasso at the Lapin Agile continues through February 24 at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street NW. Tickets are $30-$40 and available at 202-265-3767 or online here

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