“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” is essentially an answer to the age-old question: If you could have a drink with two influential figures, whom would they be?
The play, which runs at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre through Sept. 24, was written by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin, the multitalented comedian/actor/musician/writer), and in this case the answer is Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein.
The year is 1904, right as both men are on the verge of their breakout works — for Picasso, the 1907 painting of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and for Einstein, the 1905 publication of the Special Theory of Relativity. The venue: Au Lapin Agile, a real-life cabaret in the Montmartre district of Paris, a place where scruffy artists meet to discuss ideas.
The topic on this night is the 20th century itself, as each man believes he will be the one to transform it; that, and the nature of genius. Rivals at first, our two luminaries eventually bond over the way ideas “thunk” and “pop” in their minds.
Meanwhile, Germaine the waitress attempts to be the voice of reason, Freddy the bartender tells unfunny jokes, and a girl, Suzanne, vamps for Picasso, who’s already forgotten about their one-night stand. Other characters come and go to offer their two centimes.
“Picasso” is perhaps best described as a comedy of ideas. The humor plays off the irony that we, the audience, know the future the characters are trying to predict. The script is full of asides that break the fourth wall and knowing jokes about the 20th century. In the final scene, a “visitor” appears to complete the Einstein-Picasso-x? triangle, taking the absurdity factor up to a whole new level.
The laughs elicited by the play are chuckles, not belly laughs. Expect a lighthearted discussion of art and inspiration, not a farce.
As Einstein, Jake Walker is adorably earnest and funny. The giddy awkwardness that stems from his being the only one in the room who understands what he’s talking about is the most endearing part of the show.
Andy Penn makes Picasso the larger-than-life, stereotypical “artist” we expect him to be: womanizing, arrogant, and so enchanted by the idea that he can reach through his sketch paper to the future.
The other members of the cast paint their characters with broad brushstrokes. At times this can leave you feeling very aware you are watching a play, but then this is, at other times, precisely the point.
Chuck Pulliam’s set, a cozy, Bohemian cafe arranged on a thrust stage, makes the audience feel immediately present, but can cause those seated on the sides to lose a line or two when the actors’ backs are turned.
In the final moments of the play, the frame of the set is transformed, adding a little bit of magic by allowing the audience to see what Picasso and Einstein can see in their minds.
“Picasso” is almost a love-letter to the 20th century’s transformative ideas. The confluence of theoretical physics and painting embodied by the show seem to be its hallmark. Whether using equations or brushstrokes, the genius creates the world that he envisions. That is his legacy.
But the final turn of the play questions whether any of this stands a chance in the face of “songs about love.” Ultimately, the show doesn’t arrive at any conclusions. Rather, like the premise suggests, it exists to provide the experience of sharing a drink with interesting people.