Comedy of Planners

by Micheal Bowen & r & A thoughtful and funny script is given an uneven production in the Civic's current studio show, Steve Martin's intellectual-absurdist comedy, Picasso at the Lapin Agile (through Nov. 12).

It's 1904 in a bar in Paris, and in walks not only the master relativist of physics but also the master relativist of art. Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso are both right on the verge of making comparable discoveries -- that careful perception makes light and space flexible, that reality isn't anywhere near as solid and graspable as we'd thought.

Sounds like a scream, doesn't it? But playwright Martin really does ladle on the comedic opportunities -- especially with anachronisms made outrageous by the hindsight of our "century of progress" since. And besides, it's just a smart-guys-getting-drunk-and-being-told-off-by-the-barmaid kind of play.

So let me ruin the fun by attempting an equation: Humor equals the reversal of expectations times a casual attitude squared. Sudden, non-hurtful surprises, performed as if part of a daily routine, can be hilarious. And sometimes humor reveals multiple perspectives of ourselves, like in one of those cubist paintings, when you can see the back of some bug-eyed lady's head and her chin at the same time.

Time warps and rearranged faces will be funny if actors don't telegraph them. On opening night, however, the Civic's cast let its self-consciousness show. Too often they worked too hard to make the audience get the jokes -- when what was needed instead were people behaving onstage in ways reasonable to them and irrational to us. But then as Einstein might comment, it's all relative.

Nearly every one of the nine actors has funny bits to go with the missed chances. If the evening has a standout performance, though, it's Paul Villabrille's as Picasso. The role calls for an obviously brilliant, irrepressible, self-consumed kind of arrogance, and Villabrille pulls off that tricky combination. "Where are the men like me?" he booms at one point, and it's clear he's asking rhetorically. Artistically, futuristically, sexually -- nobody else really is like him, except maybe that Einstein fellow.

In a play filled with allusions to relativity, Jeremy Lindholm misses a careful definition of his character's concept in his first speech describing it. He's probably not irritated enough when the bartender questions his math abilities. Ironically, he's best at playing the stupider moments of the genius: excitement, for example, that there might actually be people interested in his Big Idea.

But where Lindholm and Max Nightser as the Visitor are content to go for the jokes contrasting what we know now about their characters and what they knew of themselves, Villabrille does the best job of embodying Martin's goal in this play: He depicts a genius who knows he's on the verge of huge discoveries but doesn't yet know where the intellectual joyride will take him.

Waggling his artist's pencil defiantly at the future, Villabrille isn't self-conscious about how brilliant, forward-thinking and virile he is. Those are just givens; it's just a matter of how he should best use his many talents. It's a very funny, very confident performance.

Scenic artist Nik Adams has enlivened the walls of Peter Hardie's Left Bank Cafe with paintings that are vaguely Toulouse-Lautrec or Impressionist. Watch for the moment when the sheep picture steps into the pages of art history.

Director Donovan Stohlberg (the Civic's marketing and development director, here stage-directing at the Civic for the first time) allows his actors room to move. Picasso spreads his wings across the stage and hops up onto counters; Einstein demonstrates the enormousness of his ideas by race-walking laps around the cafe tables. Only a couple of comedic dance sequences seem cramped in the Studio's admittedly small space. Stohlberg obviously wanted lickety-split vocal delivery of Martin's zany zingers; too bad he doesn't always get it.

In Picasso (which premiered in 1993), Martin provides a script that's probably more cerebral and less farcical than The Underpants, but very much in the thinking-person's-comedy category. The witticisms have to sparkle and flow. The audience will be questioning if they're supposed to laugh at this allusion or that conundrum, so the actors have to guide them with precision. (An Immanuel Kant joke fell flat, but then so many do.)

There are several laugh-on-top-of-the-last-laugh sequences in this show -- two geniuses have a drawing competition, Einstein explodes with big thoughts, Picasso's vanity is suddenly deflated -- but the difficulty of describing them has to do with how those jokes are in my past but your future. Time, you see, is relative.

So are critical perceptions. Somewhere off in the future, Stohlberg's cast will work out the energy-draining pauses, the misplaced emphases, the self-consciousness. And then, like that burst of inspiration when you first thought you understood general relativity or cubism, you can see a convergence of comedic possibilities.