Paris, 1904. We are welcomed to the Lapin Agile by its bartender, Freddy (Doug Boyd), who greets a 25-year-old and clean-cut Albert Einstein shortly afterward. From the show’s program, we know Pablo Picasso, passionate artist by day and even more passionate womanizer by night, will eventually join him. The two will discuss beauty, creativity and, above all, genius. The audience will be inspired as it would be by one of Picasso’s vivid paintings or Einstein’s beautifully balanced equations.
At least that’s what I expected. But the latest production of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” by the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley failed to live up to my expectations.
Martin’s script has all the makings of a great comedy. The jokes are intelligent enough to make people feel smart but crude enough to entertain. The characters have diverse brands of humor, ranging from the cunning and sassy Germaine (Hilary Hesse), the bartender’s wife, to the fast-talking and enthusiastic art dealer Sagot (Stefin Collins). “Picasso at the Lapin” ponders the creative values of science and art through a near-constant repartee of opposing witticisms, reminiscent of Stoppard’s style. But to keep people engaged through this wordplay, quick-paced and cohesive line delivery is vital. This is where the Berkeley cast fell short.
This “Picasso at the Lapin” channeled the fragments of a cubist painting but failed to bring them together for a cohesive portrayal, resulting in a disjointed, awkward experience. The actors’ speeches seemed to drag on so that it felt like we were watching excerpts rather than the play itself.
For instance, Suzanne, a ditzy young woman, describes Picasso’s ambition and prowess — in more than one aspect. Actor Rachel Ferensowicz clearly understood the humor of what she was saying, but during what was at least a five-minute monologue, she remained stationary, as did the other characters, rendering her performance dull and lifeless. At the end of what ought to have been a tantalizing glimpse of an artist who has not yet appeared onstage, the rest of the ensemble expressed little enthusiasm and simply moved on to the next topic of conversation.
Suzanne’s long-winded account was the second-worst kind of anticlimax to end a sexual encounter, and the rest of the play was no better. The quips came a second too slow, and awkward silences that were meant for effect merely blended in with the pace of the play. This made the brief moments of action — spontaneous dancing or two characters passionately kissing — not engaging but merely confusing. How, I kept wondering, did we go from a conversation so sleepy (I swear some of the audience was drooling) to random characters swallowing each other’s tongues against a wall? It was yet another piece of the play that didn’t quite fit with the rest.
There were, however, a few standout performances. Collins as Sagot brought energy to the lull at the Lapin Agile with his deftly affected bustling motions. Frances Serpa, although he only appeared toward the end of the show, was an excellent Elvis from the future, come to foretell the impact Einstein’s and Picasso’s genius would have on the 20th century. His persistent lip curl and swagger left us with no doubt he was the king of rock and roll.
Some of the ensemble might have taken a cue from these supporting actors’ commitment to their roles. Einstein, in particular, seemed to belong more in an accounting firm crunching numbers, with a personality about as dynamic as the color beige. One wonders why actor Nick Dickson chose to portray one of the most famously eccentric and dedicated physicists of all time as having about the same amount of interest in science as a substitute teacher. And this might not give due credit to substitute teachers.
Whereas Picasso’s paintings showed viewers how multidimensional unity can come from starkly contrasting fragments, the cast of “Picasso at the Lapin” showed only a flat series of overly rehearsed monologues. By the end of the play, it seemed that the actors had stopped listening to each other altogether. According to the actual Pablo Picasso, “The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.” With its unvaryingly slow pace and lack of chemistry among the cast, the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley failed to convince in “Picasso at the Lapin.