Steve Martin has moved far along the play-writing branch of his impressive career as a wry observer and droll commentator on the human condition. Old Globe Theatre audiences can ponder the progress by comparing last season’s Meteor Shower with Martin’s first play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, now on the theatre’s main stage.
Both are fun, in the antic fashion that earns Martin such respect, but the newer piece last year moved on from the awed hero-worship and dreamy fantasies to ponder on human scurryings in a more astringent, identifiable and useful fashion.
Barry Edelstein, like most of us a big Martin fan, has revived the play from 1993 to keep the relationship going between the author and Edelstein’s customers at the Globe, a sequence that began so heartily two season ago with Bright Star.
But Edelstein the director realizes that the earlier play can use some help, like an exploding set and a rousing post-bows chorus of “Jailhouse Rock,” complete with unexpected instrumental solos by some of the actors.
As Mammy Yokum might say, “Confoosin’ but amoosin’.” (Oh, go Google it!)
The play imagines an evening of drink and talk at a famed fin de siècle bistro in Paris, translated as the Agile Rabbit, on a night, probably apocryphal, when the 23-year-old Pablo Picasso and the 25-year-old Albert Einstein met for the first and only time. The painter was still in his blue period, drinking and screwing his way towards Cubism, and the scientist was an obscure Swiss patents clerk working on equations people found hard to follow.
Bar plays are a staple of 20th Century theatre – think Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life and lots of stuff by O’Neill – and Martin plugs right in, draping his own brand of surrealism over the framework like a Dali clock.
Everybody present gets their moment to shine, with bursts of individual wisdom or insight. Too often, these sound like excerpts from a notebook recording sudden clever thoughts. (“Yo-yos are nice to play with,” says a pert young woman, “but bad to be.”)
In the preliminary sparring, Einstein hasn’t a chance. While the artist can swoon the ladies with one smoldering glance, the mathematician is reduced to arithmetic tricks. (“As long as we have him here,” says the bar host, seeking help with wine pricing, “we might as well use him.”) A brash challenger, some no-name hustler representing engineering or business, I’d guess, gets a few points for enthusiasm but soon falls away. The main bout, in the genius division, is art vs. science.
As the two titans rain observations, they begin to realize the similarities in their methods and in the importance of their results. Universal understanding is suggested as the walls of the room split to reveal a massive preview of Picasso’s coming masterpiece Las Demoiselles d’Avignon and a broad night sky in which the stars do not form E=mc2 but, well, you get the idea.
So all seems right with esthetics and philosophy until a further crash and flash that introduces a time-traveler: A polite country boy with soulful eyes and sleek moves who warns people not to stop on his (blue-suede) shoes.
Earlier, a bar patron had addressed the meeting of the Big Two by reminding everybody that such moments usually involve a triumvirate. So who is the third? This new face, never actually identified as Elvis Presley, seems to be the author’s candidate, probably genius as spontaneous and untutored. While I might suggest better choices – Hank Williams comes to mind, or Orson Welles – the play really doesn’t need that much weight in its closing moments. Elvis is fine. Marilyn Monroe would have done, too. It’s all solid 20th Century stuff.
The casting is only fair. Kevin Hafso-Koppman’s Elvis may be the best hire, though the role is well-mapped. Philippe Bowgen as Picasso, while tense and driven, seems just too much the tango-dancer while Justin Long’s flighty Einstein seems more a Charles Chaplin.
Hal Linden provides a welcome maturity, seasoned but not all cynical, as an elderly patron. Donald Faison and Luna Velez are comfortable and accommodating as the staff on duty and both Marcel Spears, as the supremely self-confident self-promoter, and Ron Orbach playing a wily art dealer are actors working well though outside their natural orbits. Liza Lapira plays three female roles, one merely a costume and a squeal. She is vital and jaunty as a girl of the scene but she hasn’t sufficient presence as a mysterious countess.
Edelstein moves all of this right along but too often falls into the trap of the obvious: An actor mentions dropping something and fumbles in his pockets. Picasso mentions the influence of “Negro art” and the two cast-members who appear to be African-Americans scowl, out of character, in sudden light spots. And the play does seem to leave the text behind as the effects of the ending build.
John Lee Beatty, an old friend to the Globe, joins with lighting designer Russell H. Champa to make it a wham-bam conclusion, all the more contrast to the early part of the evening, when the brown walls and soft lights of 1904 Paris are so accurately enlisted for a stage picture of a famed place and time, made even more eloquent by the precise yet fresh costumes of Katherine Roth.
It’s an imperfect production of an unimportant play but it sure does have its moments of fun. And, I hope, it keeps the Martin-Globe partnership bubbling.
(Continues on the Old Globe’s Shiley Stage at 7 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and March 1 through March 12, 2017.)