The premise of Steve Martin's entirely ahistorical Picasso at the Lapin Agile is that Picasso and Einstein met at an artists' hangout in Montmartre in 1904. The play that results is a meditation on the nature of creativity and the role of science and art in the twentieth century — but also an intellectual prank, complete with silly jokes, clever jokes, flashes of erudition, passages that could have come from an old Saturday Night Live skit, and periodic almost-profound insights.
Martin, who wrote this in the 1990s, doesn't try to replicate the atmosphere or kind of dialogue you'd have found at an actual French cabaret a century ago — which makes the lobby of the Barth Hotel the perfect setting for Terry Dodd's low-tech production. The Barth was built in 1881 and is now home to low-income elderly and disabled residents, one of whom introduced the play with evident pleasure and pride. Renovated in 1930 and still boasting some of the original furniture, the Barth adds a fascinating patina that speaks both of time passing and of timelessness. This isn't a formal auditorium, with the actors brightly lit while the audience sits in semi-darkness; you almost feel that you've been transported to this vibrant historical cabaret yourself, cheerfully mingling with the proprietors and the clientele.
The Einstein we meet is a very young man who has inklings of his own genius but no assurance of it: the Special Theory of Relativity will not be published for another year. Picasso isn't the type to bother with inklings; already somewhat recognized though hardly world-famous, full of ego and appetite, he's contemptuous of the mere mortals who surround him, and his thoughts on women mirror precisely those of Macheath in John Gay's The Beggar's Opera: "Women. I love the sex. I must have 'em." Unfortunately, Suzanne, the woman he's had most recently, tends to see herself as a living, breathing, individual being. The other characters include Freddy, the owner of the Lapin Agile, and his attractive wife, Germaine; Gaston, a regular customer with a weak bladder; Sagot, Picasso's agent; Schmendiman, an idiot entrepreneur from the future, irresistibly reminiscent of the kind of mind that gave us, oh, I don't know, inspirational seminars and Crocs; and a second visitor from the future, who turns out to be one of the play's most suggestive surprises.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile
Presented through August 14, Barth Hotel, 1410 17th Street, 303-595-4464, www.seniorhousingoptions.org.
The production is well-paced, well-acted and thoughtfully directed, with some of the strongest performances coming from secondary characters. Larry Hecht's Freddy is wry and authoritative; he and James Nantz as Gaston have the talent, maturity and ease on stage to anchor the production, along with a poised Laura Lounge as Germaine. Joey Wishnia is extraordinarily charming and funny as Sagot, and he has some of the evening's wisest things to say about art. Asked by Einstein how he can bear to sell a Matisse that he loves, he responds: "When I bought it, I identified it.... I have named it as a work of art. Once I've done that, I don't have to own it. It will always be mine." Eric Hansen is good as the Visitor, and a lovely surprise is ZZ Moor, making her Denver debut as a Suzanne so poised, graceful and intelligent that you can't take your eyes off her. Picasso may see this woman as a plaything, but she's obviously far more than that. Brian Kusic and Benjamin James Cowhick do sterling work as Einstein and Picasso, respectively, though I wish they had put a little more thought and soul into their performances and a little less into their accents, which were so thick that their words were sometimes hard to understand.
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Picasso at the Lapin Agile is being mounted as a fundraiser for Senior Housing Options, which provides housing services at the Barth and in several other locations around the state, and has recently suffered a cut in Medicaid reimbursement. Buying a ticket is doing a good deed — but it's also your entree to a delightful time.