Genius meets artist in Steve Martin comedy [Review]

American comedian Steve Martin likely had a blast writing his first and, of course, irreverent full-length play. And the folks at Laurel Mill Playhouse currently performing the sophisticated absurdist comedy seem to be having no trouble doing the same.

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile" debuted in 1993 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Co. in Chicago, and enjoyed successful off-Broadway runs in Los Angeles and New York. Directed here by Stephen Deininger and produced by Maureen Rogers, the story begins in a little bar in the heart of artistic Paris, a real place that Pablo Picasso immortalized in his 1905 painting, "Lapin Agile."

The time is 1904, several years before Picasso will unveil his controversial "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" at the dawn of the Cubist movement. Deininger and Playhouse set designer James Raymond, assisted by stage manager/techie Maya Wilcox, have crafted a savvy French locale that speaks volumes in visual details.

Classic and impressionistic art prints hang from the rose-colored walls; some (especially a painting of sheep) will become plot devices. One, a print of an immortal Dutch painting that everyone should recognize, is mounted upstage and never mentioned; and Kat McKerrow's apt period costumes add more credibility to a very pretty illusion.

The plot revolves around young Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein meeting by chance at a bar. One of the funniest moments of the smooth opening night performance occurred right off the bat when Einstein, played by Joseph Coracle, musses his hair and sticks out his tongue to be recognized.

The 25-year-old physicist is still writing his theory of relativity and both men are on the verge of achieving greatness. A discussion about the women they're meeting leads to talk about philosophy and politics, and to theories about where amazing ideas come from: What does an artist see? What does an "Einstein" see?

Leaning heavily on artistic license and symbolism, Martin has created an intriguing cast of characters — each with a specific purpose — to interact comically with the two geniuses.

Picasso obviously represents art; Einstein represents science; and an inventor, Charles Dabernow Schmendimann, played by Zach Pajak, will represent commercialism.

Matthew Purpora as Picasso and Coracle as Einstein own the stage as the debating young eccentrics. Coracle is quaintly believable as a true brainiac, wiser than his years and careful (to the extent that he is able) to speak in laymen's terms. And as the sexy and womanizing artist bursting with talent, Purpora easily charms any female he sees, even a few in the audience.

Damien Gibbons delivers a skillfully understated character as Freddy, the intermittently brilliant owner of Lapin Agile who can't add sums without his accountant. Freddy's love affair with a waitress, played by McKerrow, introduces an interesting subplot, and McKerrow's acting also stands out. The beautiful Germane is compelling, in spite of the fact that she slept with Picasso and is hardly a faithful lover. Germane clairvoyantly foresees amazing things that will happen over the course of the 20th century.

In addition to directing, Deininger also appears onstage with ear-splitting cheerfulness as the irrepressible Gaston, a philosophizing old French man who considers himself an expert on women and spends most of his time drinking and needing to relieve himself.

As Picasso's mistress Suzanne, formally trained opera singer Samantha McEwen quickly manages to soothe the disappointment that her character doesn't sing with an acting performance that is perfectly timed and often mesmerizing.

And Kevin James Logan performs well as Picasso's agent, Sagot. Pajak as Schmendimann, a dreamer and inventor who is nowhere near the genius of Einstein or Picasso, also finds moments to shine.

Embracing her dual roles, Luba Hansen portrays Einstein's love interest, the countess, and a female admirer of Schmendimann with a change of hair color and equal believability and aplomb.

Last but not least, tribute artist Jed Duvall rocks Lapin Agile onto a new plane as the time-traveling visitor wearing blue suede shoes.

Tastefully naughty, and riotously funny, Deininger's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" ends with a charming special effect foreshadowing Picasso's discovery of "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" on a starry night, somewhere in another dimension.

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile" continues through Sunday, March 9 at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St., with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m., and matinee performances Sundays, March 2 and March 9, at 2 p.m. General admission is $15. Students 18 and under and seniors 65 and over pay $12. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2.

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