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Steve Martin tosses a bouquet of bons mots in 'Picasso at the Lapin Agile'

By Julia C. Smith

IT'S NOT OFTEN that a first-time playwright's fame precedes his work. With Picasso at the Lapin Agile, San Jose Stage Company's season opener, however, Steve Martin's celebrity almost overshadows his deft maiden script. Almost. Although one keeps getting hit over the head with this comedy was written by Steve Martin--yeah, OK, and so is his grocery list. In fact, Picasso is an intelligent, lively fantasy, full of the sort of indulgent knowledge that defines cultural literacy. The more you know about the sorts of things that might make you a champion on Jeopardy!, the funnier the play is.

As written, Picasso strips away a lot of overbearing theatrical devices, pokes fun at both its form and function, and knocks down long-standing barriers to its purpose, which seems to be to surprise and delight us. That's fair warning, all you Ibsenian purists out there: it ain't deep. Well, neither is a crème brûlée, yet most people would rather have one of those than boiled tongue.

From Martin's protean imagination comes the story of a night in a Parisian cafe, circa 1904. The bartender (Michael Keys Hall) greets his regular customer Gaston (Wes Finlay), whose arrival is followed by that of a young Albert Einstein (Don Hiatt). Anon we meet Freddy's wife, Germaine (Renee Hewitt), a comely Parisienne (Jessa Berkner), an art dealer (Gary S. Martinez) and, at last, Picasso (Johnny Moreno) himself. Einstein and Picasso are drawn to each other's unique artistry, and banter builds upon banter as the characters discuss love, art, science, time, space and marketing, not necessarily in that order.

Director Randall King has overseen a cast that is generally fine and equal to bringing highbrow comedy alive. It makes sense that the further from the natural order things go, the more appropriate become larger-than-life interpretations of idealized personifications. So it is that Hiatt's Einstein and Moreno's Picasso play like bright splashes of color, that Finlay's Gaston can spout razor-sharp straight lines to ticklish effect, and when Martinez puffs and struts, looking for all the world like a living cartoon, he is absolutely captivating.

Bigger than life and twice as dazzling in his atrocious checked suit is Randall Frizado as Schmendiman--here's a guy that damn near steals the show--and Berkner brings bright life to her primary character, Suzanne. Less successful is Hewitt's Germaine; against all this flash, her low drollery comes across as flat, especially so in her key monologue against Picasso. One can't stop looking at these characters, tossing off their brilliant bons mots, playing with notions of what is and what isn't--and when's the last time anyone had the nerve to situate a play in France yet not force the cast to adopt some ridiculous accent? Martin, who warmed up his writing arm working on Hollywood screenplays, throws one curve ball after another here, and the audience gets the hit.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile plays Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Nov. 14 at The Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $16-$25, discounts for students, seniors and groups. (408.283.7142)

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From the October 14-20, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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