Is there such a condition as "premature premise ejaculation"? If not, there should be, and it should be used to describe Picasso at the Lapin Agile by comedian Steve Martin, now at the Blank Canvas Theatre.
Just pondering the premise of this show is enough to make your brain get moist. Suppose that, in 1903, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso meet at a tiny bar in France called the Lapin Agile, and brilliance ensues. This concept bodes particularly well since Martin, a former standup comic and accomplished actor, has always been known for a wit as quick as the agile rabbit referenced in the bar's name.
So given the intriguing premise, you settle in for a treat, hoping this 80-minute one-act will be filled with a mixture of orgasmic intellectualism and clever musings. And indeed, there is some of that. But those moments are often overwhelmed by a script that too often defaults to the easiest and most adolescent humor. It's possible a tightly tuned production that deployed a quirky, over-the-top style might have helped lift the material out of the banal. But it's doubtful.
In fact, the premise is more interesting than most of the actual script, which is not the fault of director Jonathan Kronenberger or the cast. It just leaves you wishing Martin could go back to the beginning and find a way to bring his writing, and everyone, to a fitting climax. And not just leave them with a wet spot.
It all starts off with promise as 23-year-old Einstein enters the small boite and orders an absinthe. After some banter with Freddy the bartender (a mordantly observant John Busser), we learn that Albert has entered too early — a fact Freddy establishes by going into the audience and refering to the program where the cast is listed "in order of appearance." This is one of several meta moments in the play that signal Martin's desire to have fun with the theatrical form.
And that's fine, as far as it goes. Trouble is, Martin stops short of pursuing that line of comedy and instead deploys a scatter-shot arsenal of punch lines that would have been much funnier had he been on stage to deliver them. For instance, the elderly Gaston comes in to have a drink, but his visit is often interrupted by his need to pee. Rich Stimac, usually a fine performer, often substitutes volume for a more eccentric attack on his character, leaving some jokes laying in the dust.
There are other folks in the overcrowded bar who also vie for attention. Freddy's main squeeze Germaine (Carla Petroski) is helping him serve drinks and break the balls of the clientele, while Suzanne (a sultry Becca Ciamacco) swoops in to lie in wait for Picasso, with whom she recently shared a bed. Then an art dealer named Sagot (Greg Mandryk) occupies a table to pontificate amusingly on the unfortunate use of sheep and Jesus Christ as subjects for paintings.
Finally, 25-year-old Picasso (Roderick Cardwell II) arrives on the scene and he immediately begins cruising the ladies in attendance, not even recognizing he had bedded Suzanne before, much to her distress. Playwright Martin certainly understands the resumes of the pathological womanizer Picasso and the math genius Einstein. The playwright's best scene is when the two giants of the 20th century face off in a High Noon-style confrontation, with both of them showing off their prowess with pen and paper in hand.
Their brief interchanges about the relative benefits of science and art are indeed appealing. If only the play would have focused more on them and less on the other habitues of the bar, the play might be much more intriguing. Let's face it, this ain't exactly Cheers.
In a vain attempt to mine more laughs, Martin introduces a third "genius" to the fray, a guy named Schmendiman who has invented a highly questionable new building material. Even with Ronnie Thompson's best efforts in playing this fellow, it's too little too late. As is an even more desperate attempt at scoring giggles when The Singer (Evan Martin) appears from the future to comment on the nature of genius and such.
Robert Kowalewski looks like the young Einstein and provides a quirky take on this budding icon. Unfortunately, he's often difficult to hear and should pay more attention to this voice-projection formula we've just devised: E≠mc2 . (Or, a good Einstein does not equal mumbling conversation, squared.)
Unfortunately Steve Martin, like that singer mentioned above, figuratively "left the building" with regard to this show. After developing a killer premise, he kicked back, wrote up a bunch of easy gags, and distributed them amongst an excessive number of characters. Maybe he didn't want to seem pretentious, dealing with more substantive thoughts.
In any case, after more than an hour of this, you may want a Steve Martin arrow through the head. Make that a real one.