AISLE SAY Philadelphia


by Steve Martin
Directed by Aaron Posner
Arden Theatre, 40 North 2nd Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Playing through April 1, 2001
Reviewed by Claudia Perry

Hurry, hurry, hurry! Only until April Fool's Day will "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" at the Arden Theatre be making you laugh and think at the same time -- ooh, how cool. For only from the delicious mind of Steve Martin could this tasty melange of time and art come to a frothing cup of conviviality. Ah, yes, we drink absinthe, we drink wine, we drink coffee, we laugh and mull the secrets of the universe -- all in an hour and twenty minutes! As Mr. Irving Berlin would say, "Who could ask for anything more?"

Set in 1904 when both Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein were poised on the brink of greatness, these two catalysts of the 20th Century meet at the Lapin Agile, a small Parisian cafe. Einstein is a year away from publishing his "Special Theory of Relativity" and Picasso is three years away from painting his influential, "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon." The more these two men talk to each other, the more they discover what they have in common and the connection between genius and ego, ego and art, art and sex, sex and science, science and art, art and genius . . . ad infinitum. (It's a big curve you see.) But there are other characters in this bistro, mirrors, if you will, for these geniuses to bounce off their brilliant reflections. There is Freddy the reliable owner/bartender, Germaine, the bar maid and femme fatale, Gaston, the local peasant with a urinary problem, Sagot the meretricious art dealer, sexy Suzanne, Picasso's latest conquest, the irrepressible Schmendiman, creator of an asbestos based concrete and a surprise visitor from another time.

The author, actor, producer, screenwriter, comedian Steve Martin, is no newcomer to audiences. However, he is a relative newcomer to the theatre. But, mon ami, it is merely another dimension for him to conquer. And conquer it he has. The play whizzes by at the speed of light, making us laugh all the while. Some of the laughs come from sophisticated philosophical meandering, while others are from basic pratfalls or the perfect placement of four little words ("Thank you very much"). There's wit, there's mirth, there's merriment with a big dose of silliness thrown in to boot. Granted the peripheral characters are not as engaging as the two main ones, but we're laughing, so do we care, sacre bleu, non!

Bob Phillips has created a set that is almost too beautiful. His Lapin Agile is a fully realistic example of European art deco. A massive wooden bar with swirling columns that climax at a tin ceiling dominates the stage. Small cafe tables are spread across the white tiled floor while two generously cushioned window seats skirt the perimeter. The warm walnut wood is broken in places by white stained glass insets of a running rabbit. The whole effect is one of inviting elegance. The costumes by Marla Jurglanis are colorful and alluring, almost pop art in nature. For though they give the flavor of the era, they are not slavishly bound to it -- and are more of a wry commentary upon it.

The cast is very strong, not because they don't bathe (that's a French joke), but because their comic timing is so good. Though he bears no resemblance whatsoever to Picasso (he's much handsomer than the painter ever was), Ian Merrill Peakes does a fine job portraying the impassioned, roguish, self-inflated artist. Joel Schulz, who does look a little like the great scientist, is a very funny, young Einstein. Kate Norris as Germaine possesses a unique comic presence and Maggie Siff as Suzanne, the Countess and the Female Admirer is a bit of a chameleon as she makes each of her characters comedic in a different way. But the fellow that steals the show (and I think Mr. Martin has set it up this way) is Tony Braithwaite as Charles Dabernow Schmendiman -- the big jerk that thinks he's a genius. In his brief cameo appearance, Mr. Braithwaite all but chews up the scenery. And boy do we have fun watching him.

Though it takes place in Paris, this little play really moves like a Swiss watch, thanks to director Aaron Posner, who has done a great job of not taking this play too seriously -- and yet, just seriously enough. And after all, isn't that what makes comedy work? Taking it seriously?

So if you need to ruminate about the nature of time and space, art and ego, jerk and genius or you just need to get your mind off that pesky melanoma that's been bothering you lately -- head for the Lapin Agile. I guarantee it will shake your blues away.

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