In Steve Martin's play, set in a Parisian bar in 1904, one character berates another, "Don't be so old-fashioned; these are the noughts!" Martin – always keen to find outlets for his contemplative as well as his comical side – here deals quite acutely with the sense of being present at the outset of something of immense significance, whether it be the artistic career of Picasso, the Special Theory of Relativity (for Einstein is also a patron of the Lapin Agile) or the twentieth century itself.
Of course, being Steve Martin, he also includes a raft of gags, sometimes almost slapstick, sometimes obliquely self-referential: when Einstein introduces himself, the barman argues that he cannot be who he claims because (walking into the audience to consult a programme) he has not obeyed the "in order of appearance" cast-list. Martin plainly owes a sizeable debt to Stoppard's Travesties (and perhaps also to Robert Anton Wilson's novel Masks Of The Illuminati), but somehow manages to fit in two alternative candidates as the third major figure of the century, one plainly ludicrous, the other deliberately anachronistic.
Randall Arney, who directed the play's first production for Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 1993, is also at the helm for its European première. With the help of some minor authorial tweaking, he succeeds in making the script's aperçus, both humorous and serious, sound fully as English or European in their phrasing as American. Brian Shelley's Einstein is affable and slightly bumbling, catching fire only when engaged in a kind of creative duelling with Ben Walden's louche, narcissistic Picasso.
The temptation is to condescend to Martin, partly because he employs a central device which is obviously inspired by Stoppard, and also because to most Britons he remains primarily a comedian who seems to be kicking over the traces a little with a work which includes such meditations upon genius, history and their interaction. Giving in to such a temptation would be sheer snobbery. One does not have to be a fan of, or even familiar with, Martin's film and other comedy work both to enjoy and admire Picasso At The Lapin Agile. It may not be an altogether great play, but it is certainly a great hour and a half.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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