Picasso at the Lapin Agile is set in 1904 on the northern slope of the Butte Montmartre in a grimy bar, where the 20th century's finest creative minds once came together to carouse over brandy and cherries and sing their sorrows away beneath a cartoonish painting of a drunken rabbit stepping out of his frying pan and into Paris' smoky nightlife. But Steve Martin's acclaimed, long-running comedy opens more like an American Western than any French farce. A wild-haired stranger identifying himself as Albert Einstein wanders into the saloon too early and looking for a woman nobody knows. The name "Picasso," the baddest artist in town, hangs on the lips of every patron, and anybody who knows anything about Westerns knows that a showdown is inevitable. And what a showdown it is.
Picasso turns on Einstein and snarls like Clint Eastwood. "I don't think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line," he says. The words are delivered like a crushing final blow, proving once and for all that artistic thought is purer and far more radical than science. "Neither do I," Einstein chirps merrily, and the battle is suddenly and hilariously over. Artist and scientist recognize their kinship, and Martin's play turns into a punch-drunk meditation on the benefits and bitter ironies of possessing genius and achieving fame. Only an unidentified, hip-swiveling visitor from the future (and from Memphis) can interrupt the mutual admiration and put things into perspective.
Theatre Memphis' creative team of Tracey Zerwig Ford (director), and Christopher McCollum (scenic designer) have done their level best to make the audience feel like patrons in the expressionistic bar of Martin's bent imagination. Wine-drinking is encouraged, and Freddy the bartender, played by able straight man (and fair puppeteer) Henry McDaniel, is pouring reds and whites until the house lights go down and the action gets under way.
Ford treats Picasso like a rollicking atomic clown show, allowing scenes to smash into one another in a series of slapstick events. Although she sticks to the text, the performances Ford coaxes from her actors have the disarming effect of improv comedy. If Theatre Memphis' take on Picasso is less polished than the version mounted by Playhouse on the Square a few years back, it is ultimately more thoughtful and engaging. If it is cluttered with too many self-conscious bits, it perfectly reflects the cluttered mind of the playwright who used to perform his banjo routine wearing bunny ears and an arrow through the head.
Although Einstein makes for an obvious sight gag, everyone seems to miss the visual comic potential of Picasso. If Kyle Hatley (pictured) were a foot-and-a-half shorter and forced to look up at those he looks down on, he'd be perfect as the libidinous father of cubism. Marques W. Brown, as the dottering, virtually unrousable Einstein, is the perfect foil for Hatley's smoldering painter to stalk and prod. These two pivotal actors are buoyed by an excellent supporting cast, including the magnificent Barry Fuller as Gaston, the bar's resident dirty old man, Tony Isbell as Sagot, a smarmy art dealer, and Ashley Bugg Brown as Germaine, a sassy barmaid and occasional philosopher.
Martin's play also considers the poor unknown schmuck who anonymously impacts our culture: the man who invented the dunce cap and who thought of the ubiquitous photographic line "Say cheese." Said schmuck is given to us in the form of Schmendiman, a boorish reveler who occasionally interrupts the proceedings to declare his own greatness. John McFerrin's Schmendiman is so out of time with his fellow actors he actually feels like some drunken Shriner who wandered in off the street. It's a cruelly effective approach to the role and very funny.
Ford's style of comedy requires a certain kind of performer, and not everyone in the cast seems completely comfortable in their metaphorically oversized clown shoes. As "The Visitor" — an unnamed Elvis Presley — James Joseph Lukawitz is honest and effective but entirely unable to make the most of his enviable role. But even he has his moment.
Using his magical Elvis powers, the Visitor allows Picasso and Einstein to see their names written in the stars. "Where's your name?" the artist and scientist ask their new friend. "Oh yeah, it's there. Right above both of yours and three times as big. Just like Vegas," the Visitor says, smugly adding, "Get used to it, gentlemen, 'cause that's the way it works."
At Theatre Memphis through April 22nd