Altarena’s New Play Pits Talent vs. Genius

Courtesy photo    Left to right: Kim Donovan as Germaine and Peter Marietta as Albert Einstein act in Altarena Playhouse’s new performance.

Alameda’s Altarena Playhouse has boldly chosen Steve Martin’s cerebral comedy: Picasso at the Lapin Agile as its next performance. While much of what passes for comedy today rarely — or barely — rises above the slough of political parody, social satire, bedroom farce or the scatological and scortatory, Lapin clears a higher bar. 

The setting, as the title reveals, is Lapin Agile, Paris, Agile: a small bar in what was once the epicenter of bohemian Paris: the Montmartre. Martin, the Saturday Night Live comedian who has enjoyed broad popular and commercial success, could afford the risk of stepping outside the creative box and writing a play centered on a comparison and contrast of genius versus talent.
Representing talent is Pablo Picasso and, in the other corner, defending genius, is Albert Einstein. The date is Oct. 8, 1904, when both men were in their seminal years, and by chance alone, as they step into the Lapin Agile.

Einstein was still a patent clerk who races through his assignments in the morning so he can furtively work afternoons — on the government’s dime — toward his theory of special relativity: a theory he publishes in 1905.

Picasso, chafing under the conventions of representational art, was about to experiment with primitivism, abandon perspective, escape into cubism and open the sluiceway for a century of modern art. His equivalent to special relativity was a neo-cubist painting titled “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” which he completed in 1907. 

Were Martin a historian, both men would have found inspiration for their respective oeuvres at the Montemarte Chautauqua that special night in the Lapin Agile.

Germaine (wonderfully played by Kim Donovan) feels perfectly at home with her contradictions; she is a waitress at the Lapin Agile, the owner’s (Freddy’s) girlfriend and an intelligent, liberated woman excited by ideas, profundities and art; a prophetess with the clairvoyant certainty of the Cumaean Sibyl but with the persuasive powers of Casandra. Like many women of Montmartre, she has closed escrow with Picasso.

Einstein, a character that needs no introduction, is played magnificently by the Altarena’s home-grown Peter Marietta.

Under the superlative directorship of Timothy Beagley, Marietta achieves perfect timing: a balance between pensive, reflective syncopations and the brisk repartee of intelligent banter.

Were it not for his respect for the #MeToo movement, this reviewer might say that Jean Cary performs a sizzling Suzanne: a beautiful 19-year-old aficionada of the arts infatuated with Picasso yet disappointed that he is not as good with names as he is with colors — particularly her name given they know each other intimately, if not well.

Cary is triple billed in the show, deftly appearing in the roles of Suzanne, the countess and a female admirer. Quick costuming and the ability to compartmentalize her characters contribute to her dazzling success in all three roles.

Martin has written his “Wild and Crazy Guy” into the play via the highly energized character of Charles Dabernow Schmendiman: an inventor with dreams that vastly exceed his knowledge field. There are no small parts in theater; Henry Halkyard admirably steps up to the stage challenge of Schmendiman. He depicts a wonderful confluence of the antic, frantic and mantic.

If the play has heavy lifting, it is performed by the cosmopolitan Asher Krohn as Picasso. Again, good directing by Timothy Beagley has forged Krohn into not only a credible Picasso — a talented and charismatic painter — but also into an extremely egotistical and self-confident to the point of arrogance, serial womanizer and manipulator bordering on the sociopathic. Above all Krohn’s Picasso, despite his self-indulgent character flaws, is affable: indeed most likeable.

Given Einstein’s discovery of the relativity of time, don’t be surprised if a pomaded Memphis rocker (marvelously played by Patrick Glenn) wearing blue-suede shoes should drop in from the future.

Einstein’s and Picasso’s debate might seem sophomoric to some, but why risk leveraging the humor out to esoterica when the debate is just for fun and easy consumption; then too, are Quantum Entanglement and Schrödinger’s Cat all that funny?

Picasso at the Lapin Agile restores our hope that comedy can one day shift its focus from the usual suspects and the tedium of political satire to the lofty world of art, ideas and the cosmos. 

For comedy that transcends the absurdities and identity politics of the 21st century, get thee to the Altarena Theatre; now until Sunday, Nov. 3. Call 523-1553 or surf over to www.altarena.org for tickets.

 

Jeffrey R Smith is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.