|Jayne Furlong, Chuck Weed, Erik Montague, Steven Sennett, Adriana Gantzer|
By Tina Arth
So – a physicist and an artist walk into a bar…could be the beginning of a terrible joke or a wonderful play. Picasso at the Lapin Agile, by the mega talented comic/actor/musician/writer Steve Martin, is definitely the latter. In Mask & Mirror’s current production of this multi-layered work, director Benjamin Philip and his cast capture most of Picasso’s philosophical nuance while delivering a terribly funny evening of sometimes very broad comedy.
Imagine a Paris bar, the Lapin Agile, in 1904. Bartender Freddy is setting up for the evening’s business as a series of characters wander in. First is the curmudgeonly Gaston, grumbling about his status as “newly old.” Next comes Freddy’s girlfriend Germaine, the smart, cynical barmaid. What looks like an ordinary evening shifts with the arrival of a young, socially awkward patent office drone named Albert Einstein. Two more arrivals are the nubile Suzanne and Sagot, a mercenary but thoughtful art dealer – both in thrall to the as yet unseen but much talked about Pablo Picasso. Suzanne wants his body, Sagot the body of his work. Finally, in struts Picasso himself – and thus begins a surreal mental duel between two very different geniuses, each on the verge of work that will set the tone for both the scientific and artistic earthquakes that shake and shape the 20th century.
While the show is in many ways dominated by the interaction between Picasso and Einstein, some of the evening’s best performances come from comparatively minor characters. Steven Sennett is quietly riveting as Freddy, seemingly a bit dense and plebian but always watching, commenting with his eyes on the absurdity around him. It is no mistake that playwright Martin gives Freddy the best line in the play – the one that neatly encapsulates the whole theme – and Sennett’s performance is worthy of this honor. Diana LoVerso turns in another fine, low-key performance, creating a wryly-intelligent Sagot, a mercenary with heart and taste; her timing is superb and she moves around the stage with the grace of a dancer. On the other end of the spectrum, one character in the show must be played over-the-top – loud, gauche, and just so pathetically wrong – and Les Ico’s Charles Dabernow Schmendiman is all that and more. Ico is a born comic, and he brings all he’s got to this marvelous little cameo of a role.
Erik Montague (Einstein) is earnestly funny in Act I, treating his character with a gently appropriate mockery. As the play progresses, Montague’s performance gets broader, and at some point he crosses the line between absurd and ridiculous (as when he enters with glasses askew after the amorous interlude with the Countess). A little restraint would go a long way toward helping the audience accept that this is, while surreal, still a young Einstein and not Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor. Even in mid-run this slight shift could be easily achieved. His artistic counterpart, Blaine Vincent (as Picasso) skirts with excess in a few places, but overall manages to rein in the slapstick while delivering his character’s stunningly egotistical lines with a nonchalant enthusiasm.
In keeping with the reality of 1904 (and well beyond – maybe “time’s up” now?) the primary female characters are drawn largely as accessories. Jayne Furlong gives us exactly what we expect – a “Suzanne” who is flirty, pouty, shallow, easily offended but eager to hitch her wagon to a star. Adriana Gantzer is quieter and subtler as the earthy but intelligent barmaid Germaine. I have seen the part played with more of a coarse, slatternly bent, and I much prefer Gantzer’s interpretation.
The single barroom set, with its lovely faux brick walls, contributes immeasurably to the show’s Parisian barroom ambience. Special props to lighting designer John Swiecick and light board operator Steve Hotaling for a series of carefully timed effects (especially with the much-maligned sheep painting) that work beautifully, enhancing both the comedic and thematic messages.
Mask & Mirror’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile runs Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm through March 25th at “The Stage” at Calvin Church, 10445 SW Canterbury Lane, Tigard, 97224.