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Arts and sciences: Whitton and Getnick in HMT’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile.

Genius Loves Company
By Kathy Ceceri

Picasso at the Lapin Agile
By Steve Martin, directed by Alma Becker
Home Made Theater, through Feb. 27

Home Made Theater’s pro- duction of Picasso at the Lapin Agile explodes with energy, which is only fitting for a play in which the artistic genius meets, and faces off against, Albert Einstein. Comedian and art collector Steve Martin may not have been the first to draw a connection between the two—the science historian Arthur I. Miller has noted that both the Theory of Relativity and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon deal with the problem of representing space and time—but he crafts an imaginary 1904 convergence of the pair of self-confident young men (Einstein was 25 at the time, Picasso 23), at the artist’s favorite Paris bar, that is massively funny. Director Alma Becker and her fine ensemble cast don’t miss a molecule of humor in a script filled with jokes of every kind: wordplay, bathroom humor and plain nuance. The opening-night audience howled at everything, including long, involved stories that sounded like they should be funny, even though they didn’t make any sense (I think). Even the name “Einstein,” spoken with the right inflection, got a laugh. At the same time, the play’s characters discuss modern art, the universe, and romanticism, as if people talked about such concepts every day. Perhaps they did, at the beginning of the 20th century. From the look of things, it was a new and exciting time.

Jonathan Getnick makes a suitably rumpled and charged-up Einstein, although it’s clear Martin was going more for the idea rather than the actual man (in this aspect, the play reminded me of Tom Stoppard’s comedy Travesties, which postulated a meeting between James Joyce, Lenin and the Surrealist poet Tristan Tzara at the Zurich Public Library). As Picasso, Jonathan Whitton does a complete turn-around from his portrayal earlier this season of the androgynous MC in HMT’s production of Cabaret, becoming a wolf who loves to drive women crazy. Though he’s nothing like Picasso physically, there was no mistaking the egomaniacal persona we’ve come to associate with the artist in Whitton’s performance. Pete Burleigh plays Freddy the barkeep, another historically based character who is as down-to-earth as they come. He’s satisfied with a painting of sheep in a meadow on the wall of his establishment, and finds Einstein handy for adding up liquor costs in word problems that would do any math test proud. Sari Bobbin is Freddy’s girlfriend, the waitress Germaine, another borrowing from real life who serves to draw the geniuses (genii?) into conversations about the meaning of it all. Both were excellent, as was Adrienne Jade Paul as Suzanne, a Picasso conquest.

Becker adds some extra spice by transforming Picasso’s art dealer Sagot from a male into a liberated lesbian. As played by Amy McKenna, Sagot is passionate and cool at the same time, advising Suzanne to get the portrait Picasso scribbled for her signed. Steve Heinel has an amazing turn as Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, the inventor of a disgusting building compound who fancies himself the equal of the painter and the scientist. And John Schmiederer as A Visitor manages to do Elvis without going overboard, a far-from-easy feat. Only Michael Wilcox failed to shine in the less flashy role of Gaston, an older man with a recurring need to pee.

Production-wise, there are few missteps here. The set by William E. Fritz, aside from its Cheers-like entrance, is authentically turn-of-the-century Parisian, as are the elegant costumes by Patty Pawliczak. (It’s a shame that Paul, who changes characters twice, has to endure an awkward change of wigs as well.) The final set change, enhanced by David Yergan’s lighting, was a bit bumpy on opening night but worked well. Altogether, HMT does a glowing job of presenting this absurdist, deeply meaningful play with equal proportions of humor, profundity and zip.

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