MET uncorks a fine Picasso at the Lapin Agile

I’ve always had a soft spot for Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Steve Martin’s eccentric script about the meeting of minds at a 1904 Paris bar. Despite its loose-meat dramatic structure — characters don’t have arcs so much as they exhibit symptoms; waiting-room banter takes the place of urgent communiques — the play is a tirelessly charming mosaic of chance meetings and high-low comedic riffs.

Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s production is a welcome reminder of how a skillful director (here, Bob Paisley) can sell a tricky play. This is MET at its finest: polished direction, focused design and performances that ground Martin’s more cerebral dramatic diversions.

It starts with a set as functional as it is stylish. Chuck Pulliam has designed a tiered stage that terminates in an enormous, asymmetrical picture frame; the second tier is angled just enough to force the actors into dynamic stage patterns. Dark wood grain and a floor with the unmistakable green hue of a pool table transform the set into exactly kind of place you can imagine artists and philosophers sharing a drink.

So we’re hardly surprised when Albert Einstein (Jake Walker) descends, stiff-backed, into an open chair and calls for some wine. Or when a young Pablo Picasso (Andy Penn) storms in, fueled by such lust and spite we can almost see steam rising from the top of his head. From there, Picasso unspools as a 90-minute panel discussion on what it means to make art and what it means to own it — laced, of course, with low puns, mistaken identities and literal potty humor.

Penn is all bombast and testosterone as Picasso, lines pouring from his mouth like so many erratic jabs of a paintbrush. Penn shows us the artist’s arrogant side, but also his sensitivity and vision — a monologue in which he describes his lover Suzanne’s bedroom is an unexpected highlight.
Walker turns in a precise, physically detailed performance as the irascible Einstein. He renders the scientist with a wry palette of effete mannerisms and spitty vocal tics (all in a Vaudeville-grade German accent); his nerdy, unpretentious energy is the perfect complement to Picasso’s sex-steeped purr.

Bryan Moses lends a casual, sarcastic edge to Freddy, the Lapin Agile’s owner and bartender, and Devon Barnes finds a quiet exasperation in Freddy’s girlfriend, Germaine. Laura Henrickson struggles at times to motivate the sultry Suzanne’s lengthy monologues early in the play, but hits a comfortable stride ripping into her ex-lover’s narcissistic tendencies.

Bill Pelletier is a formidable presence as Picasso’s rich-voiced art dealer, Sagot. R. H. Wilhoit makes a frenetic, hilarious entrance as the unsung “genius” Schmendiman. And Kevin Fewell balances the scales with a relaxed, subtle performance as the plainspoken patron Gaston.
Paisley’s attentive blocking keeps actors from turning their backs to any of the three seating units for too long; motivated crosses prevent them from looking like carousel horses.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile has its share of twists — meta-theatrical lines delivered with a wink, time-traveling snippets of rock songs, sentient stars. Sound designer John Story helps us navigate the at-times murky magical waters. Karen Paisley and Nick Relic keep the costumes largely period-friendly (save Picasso, who looks distinctly modern in corduroys and a knit scarf), and prop designer Marc Manley gives the bar a weathered charm with old bottles and decanters.

In the end, it’s Martin’s sense of wonder that elevates Picasso beyond mere cleverness. One of the play’s distinct pleasures is watching the greatest minds of the 20th century grappling with jealousy and gaping at the stars, as inspired by life as we are by their work.

“It would be nice to wake up and have a raison d‘ětre to go with your morning coffee,” Gaston says early in the play. MET makes engaging theater of that quest. 

Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Through September 24 at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, 3604 Main, 816-569-3226,

Categories: A&E, Stage