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Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Picasso at the Lapin Agile
New Repertory Theatre

Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Neil A. Casey, Marianna Bassham and
Scott Sweatt

Imagine a moment in time, in Paris, 1904, when two of the brightest stars of the young century happen to meet in a bar. It is the Belle Époque, a golden age characterized by peace, new technologies and developing art forms. As science and art make a decisive impact on the rapidly changing society, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso are poised to step to the fore of their respective fields and claim their places in history. In his 1993 play, Steve Martin envisions such a meeting in the Lapin Agile as each man is on the verge of realizing his potential.

The New Repertory Theatre concludes its 25th anniversary season with Picasso at the Lapin Agile, a play about the possibilities of the future, even as New Rep bids farewell to Rick Lombardo and hands the reins over to its new Artistic Director, Kate Warner. Director Daniel Gidron makes his debut at New Rep, as do three members of the cast. The rest of the ensemble and most of the design team are returning to this stage, building on past accomplishments to create a promising production.

Cristina Todesco's attractive set welcomes us into turn-of-the-century Paris. It features a marble-topped bar, café tables with Bentwood chairs and an eye-catching checkerboard floor of oversize black and white tiles. A string of white lights is draped across the top of turquoise walls, and a large painting of sheep in a meadow hangs behind the bar. Period costumes by Frances Nelson McSherry are evocative, and the women's long dresses are especially colorful and detailed. Stacy Fischer benefits three-fold, playing multiple characters wearing red with black embroidered trim, violet with a bolero jacket and a girlish blue sailor style with straw boater. Kudos to Michael A. King for designing an assortment of beautiful wigs for her, too. The men are generally tailored more simply, but each has a signature item, ranging from a red plaid vest for Gaston and sleeve garters for Freddy, to Picasso's iconic blue vest, Einstein's pipe and Sagot's loud black and white plaid cloak.

Freddy (Owen Doyle), the down-to-earth owner of the bar, is coupled with sassy waitress Germaine (Marianna Bassham). Gaston (Paul D. Farwell) is a regular patron who is just getting used to being an older man, requiring frequent visits to the toilette. Suzanne (Fischer) comes to the Lapin Agile in hopes of reconnecting with Picasso following a short-lived tryst, and the Countess is Einstein's date who understands not to meet him where they originally planned. Sagot (Scott H. Severance) is a boisterous art dealer who represents Picasso and his rival, the talented Matisse.

The theme of the play is the debate between the two protagonists over the value of art as a science and science as an art. Neil Casey portrays Einstein as a cerebral pragmatist, underplaying him into the background, while Scott Sweatt overplays Picasso with raw physicality and open emotion. Both men convincingly argue their opposing points of view reflecting a personal bias for science or art as the change agent for the twentieth century. They even participate in a duel with pencils, hurriedly drawing their best ideas on napkins to prove the beauty of their creations.

When Gaston proposes that there must be a third person who will also change the century, Martin introduces the absurd persona of Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, inventor of "an inflexible and very brittle building material ... called Schmendimite." Dressed as an aviator with a long, flowing white scarf, goggles, leather helmet and jacket, Dennis Trainor, Jr. makes a brassy entrance and milks his brief moment in the spotlight as the wide-eyed wacko who believes that he will be the big star of the next 100 years. Trainor's energetic silliness is a departure from some of his recent roles on Boston stages and showcases his considerable comedic skills.

Inasmuch as Martin's fingerprints are all over this play, Schmendiman is his alter ego, but you can also feel his presence in Einstein's exaggerated laugh, Picasso's over the top antics and his use of an anachronistic visitor to portend the future. Bearing in mind that this is the author's first full-length play, I found the writing somewhat uneven, yet filled with his trademark sensibilities. The cohesive ensemble mines the humor and intelligence in every scene, although some veins are richer than others. Farwell succeeds in making Gaston's repeated exits to the loo funny every time when they could become overworked shtick. Bassham injects depth and dimension into her character, letting us know that Germaine is one of the smarter rabbits in this warren. Fischer impresses during Suzanne's nonverbal attempt to attract Picasso's attention, as well as in her quick turn as A Female Admirer.

When the play nears its conclusion, A Visitor (Christopher James Webb) arrives to settle the dispute between Einstein and Picasso, suggesting that neither may reach the pinnacle of his success. Perhaps it is Martin's way of taking a poke at our culture's fascination with celebrity and sometime lack of appreciation of the geniuses of art and science. To the astonishment of the patrons, the walls of the Lapin Agile slide away, revealing a backdrop of the night sky. It is written in the stars who shall have top billing.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile, performances through May 10 at The New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown. Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org.

Directed by Daniel Gidron; Scenic Design, Cristina Todesco; Costume Design, Frances Nelson McSherry; Lighting Design, John R. Malinowski; Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Wig and make-up Design, Michael A. King; Properties Design, Georgina Kayes; Stage Manager, Jennifer Braun; Assistant Stage Manager, Lisa Wondolowski

Cast (in order of appearance): Owen Doyle, Freddy; Paul D. Farwell, Gaston; Marianna Bassham, Germaine; Neil A. Casey, Albert Einstein; Stacy Fischer, Suzanne, The Countess, A Female Admirer; Scott H. Severance, Sagot; Scott Sweatt, Pablo Picasso; Dennis Trainor, Charles Dabernow Schmendiman; Christopher James Webb, A Visitor


Photo: Andrew Brilliant/ Brilliant Pictures



Nancy Grossman



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