December 01, 1994

Cafe Laughter

Filed under: Archive,Interstate,Theatre

Picasso at the Lapin Agile
by Steve Martin
Playbox Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

It is the beginning of the twentieth century, the Noughts, as Steve Martin waggishly calls them. Freddy’s place, the Lapin Agile in Montmartre, is hopping with activity. Here is Cafe Society- the chic, the famous, the brainy, the belle, and tous les hangers on. Robert Hughes compared European cafes to magazines- bright vortices of plumage and pleasure. The idea has persisted. We bourgeois have disinvented ourselves. We are all of us, now, bohemian. For the price of a short black we can buy our share of the slouching ambience of the pavement cafe. Like Harley Davidsons and Doc Martens, cafes signify our disdain of the safe and the banal. We can subscribe to the danger of the new and fantasies of the artist’s life – like Americans in Paris, like tourists- sorry, travellers- in modernist cyberspace.

It is astute of Steve Martin to recognise this in himself- and in the audience for his whimsical imagining of a close encounter between two masters of the modern universe, Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein. Martin’s play- workshopped last year in Melbourne in what must be one of the farthest flung out-of-town tryouts in American theatre history- recognises that the Museum of Modern Art catalogue has long become the orthodoxy, that the great experiments of the Noughts are the middlebrow nostalgia of the Nineties. Not that he takes it too seriously- which makes Picasso at the Lapin Agile even more interesting because it suggests that popular theatre can assume more about its audience. There’s no need to serve them bedroom farce and all that Blondie and Dagwood naturalism. You can refer to paintings and theorems and make speeches about the constructions of culture and gender. There are a lot of people who can follow that sort of thing, even when the narrative is elliptical and self-referential. Especially when it’s funny.

Steve Martin inhabits an interesting crevice in current comedy. Less neurotic than Woody Allen, more substantial than Dan Aykroyd, he has the vitality of Robin Williams without becoming garbled. From his screwball stand-up routines to the urbane wit of LA Story, Martin has been moving along nicely and Picasso at the Lapin Agile, his first stage work, introduces a distinctive comic style. Its constituents include recognisable Martin traits, touches of what might generically be called Python and a debt to such colloquies of the Dead and Famous as Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls and Tom Stoppard’s Travesties.

But unlike Travesties this play is not an overly clever exercise in verbal algebra. Martin’s play, doubtless only a stage or two further on from a file full of gags and sketches, has a chaotic exuberance which has benefited from the good-natured attentions of director Neil Armfield and a lively and able cast.

When Einstein wanders like a random atom into the Lapin Agile he finds not only the cafe owners Freddy and Germaine but Gaston, an ageing existentialist, Suzanne, a young admirer of Picasso, the art dealer Sagot and, eventually, Picasso himself. The talk is about art, philosophy, science, the future – Germaine imagines air transport and microprocessors, Freddy that Germany will be the country of peace and France the military leader of Europe. There are jokes about jokes. Einstein thinks it’s hilarious that an equation is out of sequence, Sagot that he can guess paintings by reading their captions. Freddy tells icebox jokes- ones that suddenly dawn long after you’ve heard them, when you are opening the refrigerator. Into all this mot jousting comes Schmendiman, inventor of schmendimite- a brittle building material made for modern times. Its ingredients are radium, asbestos and baby kittens.

Guided by Armfield, and their own good instincts, the players keep an easy connection to the sometimes earnest Admiration of Great Minds evident in Martin’s text. As Freddy, Shane Bourne acts as a kind of MC, it is nicely judged and disciplined work. Deborah Kennedy manages to contain the universe in one raised eyebrow while Cliff Ellen’s Gaston could have wandered out of the front bar of Tattersalls. Jane Borghesi is less successful with her less promising task as a bevy of admirers. Alex Menglet’s predatory, but highly discerning, Sagot is well-etched.

Tyler Coppin gives us a Lower East Side Einstein. Hunched and formidable his is an engaging portrait and a match for Jeremy Sims’s hilarious cartoon Picasso. With commedia eyebrows and a permanent matador stance he both exudes and lampoons the painter’s vitality. Sitting at a cafe table he is distracted- I am trying
not to have an idea, he boasts.

Stephen Curtis’s set is cubist Fritz Freleng, zig-zaggy picture frame with burgundy walls and checkerboard floor. Along one wall is a landscape – occasion for diverting seminars on the nature and purpose of painting. It is the stranger from the future who sees the painting transform into Les Desmoiselles D’Avignon. He’s from Memphis, a country boy who just wants to make sure no-one is lonesome tonight. Martin happily collapses his dialectic into dead Elvis jokes- suavely underplayed by Nick Bufalo- and the spectacle of Schmendiman, that bizarre figure of confounded destiny (splendidly manic slapstick from former Castanet, Warren Coleman). After what has preceded it, this Elvis business might have been an irritation, a convenient slither into surreal nonsense. Instead it is playful and suggests a confident, if sometimes frivolous invention. Steve Martin and Playbox have made a funny play interestingly and variously funny. Picasso at the Lapin Agile is one clever wabbit.

The Adelaide Review, December, 1994.

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