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Fistful of Wit 

Star Bar Players deliver with Steve Martin's philosophical romp

Picasso at the Lapin Agile, currently playing at the Lon Chaney Theater, is a terrific romp. It has philosophers, physicists, sexy dames, painters, singers, grumpy old men, time travel, meditations on painting, meditations on sex, meditations on the prostate and plenty of good sport.

Ably directed by Mark Hennessy, a Star Bar veteran, this largely amateur cast does justice to Steve Martin's (yes, that Steve Martin's) witty comedy.

Well, it's not only a comedy, for Martin does make serious attempts to address art and science, fame and obscurity, the quixotic nature of creativity and a few other themes important in the 20th century. At the center of the play is a small conceit: What if Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso had met early in their careers? What might they have said to each other? What would they have had in common? What would they have fought about?

In Martin's universe, Einstein and Picasso do indeed meet, at the bar the Lapin Agile, in Paris in the dawning years of the 20th century.

The play is clever and fast paced, with lots of Steve Martin-esque throwaway lines such as "I can be rude -- I'm French" (and the French jokes have particular resonance in the dawning hours of this century, given current geopolitical realities), or "No pun intended; no pun achieved." It is mostly in these moments that the play has the most life. The longer philosophical set pieces -- first one character, then another, then another stepping up and delivering a monologue from his or her perspective -- can feel a little contrived, and you may find yourself waiting for the pace to return to the manic.

Still, as director Hennessy writes in his program notes, these meditations are most interesting in what they reveal about Martin himself, rather than something more "objective" about the nature of creativity or the beauty of a perfect mathematical formula.

The most interesting of these reflections takes place between Einstein (Kenny Knapp) and Picasso (Alex Ferrill) on the process of creativity. In a snappy back-and-forth, they discuss how ordinary folks believe that creativity simply comes in flashes, rather than in toil, then both wistfully declare that it isn't true, well, except for sometimes, and they both sit in reverie thinking about that magical sometimes. For anyone who has ever tried to compose a sonata, a perfect sentence or a perfect mathematical formula, that wistfulness will feel like a rare moment of shared understanding.

This quick dialogue and meditation is aided by the able acting of Ferrill and Knapp, both of whom inhabit their respective characters nicely. Ferrill in particular has a strong stage presence -- appropriate for the overweening ego of Picasso -- that ratcheted up the energy level for the whole ensemble whenever he was on stage. He was nicely balanced by the character of Sagot, an art collector (Ellen Otterly), who also took command during her set pieces.

Appropriately, everyone was overwhelmed by the character of Schmendiman (Joshua Higgason), a know-nothing huckster who leaps onto the stage with his proclamation that he will become famous in the century for a new "inflexible and brittle building material made of equal parts asbestos, kitten paws and radium." Higgason, who appears to be about six feet three inches and 125 pounds, is all nervous energy and wild projection, bounding about like a hopped-up greyhound puppy in a banker's box. The Lon Chaney Theater could barely contain him. Thank goodness for the wry comments from Gaston (John Iozzi), the grumpy old man at the bar with the wry deflating lines or the roof might have blown off the building (literally, as opposed to figuratively, which in fact it does).

The intimacy of the Lon Chaney Theater is particularly apropos, as those four old walls barely feel like enough to contain all the zany energy of the piece. Given the intimacy of the space, the madcap energy of the Martin's play might have easily turned into slapstick, but director Hennessy wisely emphasized the language of Martin's Picasso, and the actors, without exception, delivered their lines crisply and with strong articulation so that nary a word was lost in the fray.

All in all, a night at the Lapin Agile is a great investment of time and funds. Lots of good laughs in an intimate setting with a good cast of community actors is just the prescription for the-end-of-winter, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it blues of this new turn of the century.

-- Andrea Lucard

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