Picasso at the Lapin Agile, playing at Long Wharf Theatre now until Dec. 21, is written by Steve Martin, so let’s answer the first question you may have: Yes, it’s funny. It’s very funny. And its best jokes are the ones in which the subject is humor itself—how it works and why it sometimes doesn’t.
The play revolves around a chance meeting between Albert Einstein (Robbie Tann) and Pablo Picasso (Grayson DeJesus) in the Lapin Agile, a Paris bar, circa 1904. Witnesses to this meeting of the minds—though they’re both really there to meet women—are Freddy (Tom Riis Farrell), the bar’s owner; Germaine (Penny Balfour), his wife; Gaston (David Margulies), a curmudgeon with a tiny bladder; an art dealer named Sagot (Ronald Guttman); love interests Suzanne and the Countess (both played by Dina Shihabi); a hapless entrepreneur named Schmendiman (Jonathan Spivey); and, well, Elvis (Jake Silbermann).
Lapin Agile is at its best when Martin—obviously a longtime student and master of comedy—shows us, with astonishing range and inventiveness, how many different ways he can make us laugh. The jokes run from the easiest puns (“There’s something in the air tonight” [sneeze]), to Tracy and Hepburn–style repartee, to long-con setups, to what Einstein refers to as an “icebox” joke: the one you don’t get when you first hear it, but you find yourself laughing the next day when the punchline finally hits you, just as you’re opening the refrigerator. There are also elaborate dissections of all of the above, which are arguably funnier than the jokes themselves.
This is partly due to the terrific comedic timing of the uniformly excellent cast, who dig into the material with great enthusiasm, imbuing their characters with wit and restless energy. Martin makes Einstein an exuberant eccentric and Picasso an unapologetic lothario. Tann and DeJesus give them the confidence and charisma to transcend their types and make them believable as human beings—and as geniuses. As the play’s straight man and woman, Farrell and Balfour always let the audience know that their characters know more than they’re saying. Guttman’s Sagot is utterly comfortable as a man with impeccable artistic taste who also knows how to capitalize on it. Spivey makes Schmendiman—a grade-A idiot—charming where he could be incredibly annoying. Margulies’ Gaston gets a lot of the best lines, and Margulies delivers them so well that at times he threatens to steal the show. Silbermann plays Elvis, a role about as prone to clichés as any character out there, as a man who looks askance at his own iconic fame. The production’s secret weapon, however, might be Dina Shihabi. As the oversexed Suzanne, the aloof Countess, and a third character who shows up just long enough to make a long-simmering joke suddenly boil over, Shihabi fully realizes each of her roles, yet is so different in each of them that it takes a moment to recognize that it’s her in all three.
If there’s a fault in Lapin Agile, it lies in some overreaching. Martin uses his chosen subject to ruminate on the nature of genius—scientific, artistic or otherwise—and what its effects on the legacy of the 20th century might be. This leads to some insightful, beautifully phrased moments, particularly in a speech Einstein gets.
“We’re not so much going to change the century as bend it,” he argues. “The century is just flying along in space and it whizzes by Picasso here and it picks up speed and it flings itself off in a new direction. Like a comet veering left at the sun. The century is just zigzagging along, bending and curving, influenced by the powerful gravity of people like Picasso. But the century itself, because we’re in it, appears to be heading straight.”
The moments when Picasso and Einstein find the ways in which their disparate geniuses connect have a certain thrill to them, too, but there the cracks in the language start to show a little bit. And the final act of the play—when Elvis arrives—starts to creak under the weight Martin has put on it.
Near the end of the play, Picasso wants to toast the 20th century. “I know why,” Elvis says. “’Cause this century, the accomplishments of artists and scientists outshone the accomplishments of politicians and governments.” This statement and many like it toward the end of the play work only if you don’t look at them too closely.
But how much does that really matter? About midway through the play, Schmendiman, in full huckster mode, gives us one of the differences between talent and genius: “Talent is the ability to say things well, but genius is the ability to, well, say things!” Martin may not be a genius. But that’s no insult. Because after decades of show business, he’s still one of the most talented comedians we’ve got.
Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile plays through Dec. 21. For more information, visit the Long Wharf Theater website.