So a pre-famous Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar, argue loftily about who’s talent has more merit, and the result is a B minus level SNL skit stretched to fill a one-act play. You know the kind of skit I’m talking about, sure there are funny bits, clever ideas even, with terrific characters, but then somehow the thing runs away with itself as if the comedy writers just couldn’t figure out where to go past the first several laughs. By the time it’s over, you’ve pretty much been done with the thing for a while.
This was the gist of my assessment of Picasso at the Lapine Agile when I reviewed it in 2012. By that time, the play, written by Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) was already 19 years old and showing its comedy age. We can all spot Martin’s early trademark blend of zany, erudite, deprecating and sarcastic comedy delivered with a particular casual set up…pause for a second…dry-witted punchline delivery. We’ve heard him ply this shtick for years. So a play where all the characters either sound like Martin himself or like a character he’d play, already felt overly familiar.
Fast forward to 2018 to the Alley’s Theatre’s production, and not only does the comedy feel stale, but a strong whiff’s of corniness at best and the occasional offside cultural remark/gender stereotype at worst, renders the play a dinosaur without any real reason for reincarnation.
But reincarnation seems to be what the 2017/18 Alley programming is all about. It was a colleague of mine who astutely pointed out that other than one show this season; all the plays on offer are about dead famous people. Was it planned? Is there meaning to this? Are they trying to tell us something?
It’s possible to see why the other shows were programmed. Rajiv Joseph's new play, Describe the Night, about Russian writer Isaac Babel, was commissioned via the Alley’s All New program. Texas playwright, Lawrence Wright’s, Cleo, about Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s love affair, gave the Alley a high profile World Premiere and a story that attempted to address our gossip mongering obsession with fame. We’d already seen Robert Schenkkan’s, All the Way, on the Alley stage, so why not program his LBJ part two play, The Great Society. Suzanne Vega sang about renowned Southern writer Carson McCullers in yet another world premiere, Lover Beloved, I suppose giving the Alley a patina of retro hipness. Terry Teachout’s story of Louis Armstrong, Satchmo at the Waldorf, addressed racial bias through a much-loved American musician. Sherlock Holmes may not be a real person but he is so ingrained into our collective cultural memory that I’ll count him as one here so as to include, Holmes and Watson, by Jeffrey Hatcher, which the Alley no doubt programmed for audience acquaintanceship.
But then why the now 25-year-old Picasso at the Lapin Agile? Other than trading on Martin’s fame to sell tickets, I haven’t the foggiest. So then, rather than question meaning or poo-pooing the choice, let’s instead pull up a seat at the bar with Picasso and Einstein and try to find a glass half full to talk about.
There hasn’t been a lot of great news about the Alley lately, so it was a lovely surprise to learn that two new terrific actors were added to their repertory company, both of whom can claim the show’s strongest performances. Shawn Hamilton, no stranger to the Alley stage, plays Freddy, the bartender at the Lapin Agile (rendered beautifully in warm honey brown hues of wood by Kevin Rigdon) where the play’s action takes place.
Even as the show’s straight-man, Hamilton manages to have swagger. His lines may not be the funny ones and he may not be a lead character, but whenever Freddy talks, we listen. When others talk, we sneak a look at him to see what his reaction is. Hamilton’s presence on stage is large and fingers crossed, his future roles with the Alley will be as well.
Most people in Houston will know Dylan Godwin from his musical turns at TUTS and Stages, but that doesn’t mean he can’t deliver a mean dramatic role. We at the Houston Press gave him the Best Breakthrough Award in 2014 for his supporting performance in David Lindsay-Abaire's, Good People, also at the Alley Theatre.
This time, however, Godwin is front and center as Albert Einstein himself, and his ability to find the calm and controlled in Martin’s overly silly and chaotic plot, makes him a standout. With just a tich of a German accent (look at the shtars in the sky!) hands that always seem to be itching for a pen to write formulas down, eyes that bug out in excitement when talking about the universe and yes, the trademark hair, Godwin never lets the impression overtake the performance.
The rest of the cast does a fine enough job with characters that are thinner than rice paper left out in the rain. There are those that are required to be ridiculously over the top (an uber machismo Picasso played by Joseph Castillo-Midyett and a soon to be flunky, overly confident inventor, Schmendiman, played by Chris Hutchison). Female characters that either fulfill the sidekick or bimbo role (Melissa Pritchett in various roles) or the tough woman/whore (Elizabeth Bunch as Germaine). Male characters that we laugh at and with (elderly, sex-obsessed bar fly Gaston played by Torrey Hanson and money-grubbing art dealer, Sagot, played by Todd Waite). And then there is the Visitor (Jay Sullivan, making the best of the show’s most ridiculous and unnecessary character.)
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The frustrating part of it all is that amongst the absurdity, Martin really does have some exciting things to explore. Is the talent of the hand, able to render beauty for all to see, equal to the talent of the mind, able to render beautiful meaning to that which is all around us? Is art equal to science when it comes to raw talent?
When Martin drops the clowning act and lets his characters address these issues with insight and humor, the play shines. But unfortunately, these moments (given thoughtful treatment by director Sanford Robbins) are too few to hold the play together in any kind of cohesive manner. We constantly feel like we are transitioning between one bit and another skit, without any real connective tissue to hold the thing together.
“There’s something in the air tonight”, says Freddy at the opening of the play right before he sneezes. We feel ya, Freddy. This show aggravated our reflexes too.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile continues through June 3 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $26-$96.