University Theater’s production of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, playing this weekend in the Third Floor Theater of the Reynolds Club, is a spirited comedy well worth seeing. Written by Steve Martin, it originally appeared at the Steppenwolf Theater 15 years ago. Director Paul Bruton’s ambitious effort, backed by a talented and dedicated team of actors and designers, had me giggling throughout.
As you might expect from a Steve Martin play, it shines in the small parts. William Coon’s Schmendiman character, in particular—the fellow apparently responsible for such 20th- century innovations as saying “cheese” during photographs and the use of asbestos in building construction—was positively, ecstatically perfect. A double superlative—I think he can handle it.
The action takes place in a French café, though you may not gather that from the accents or decor. University Theater’s prohibition of put-on accents in its productions weighs heavily on a show about a German physicist meeting a Spanish painter in a French bar (everyone ends up sounding like John Cleese).
Lila Newman’s early Elvis, however, is spot- on; Woody Davis’s Einstein is energetic; and James Snyder’s Picasso is spirited and considered. The show tends to lag a little during the many soliloquy sequences, which honestly get a little heavy for what is essentially a very, very light comedy. Alice Bynam’s Madeline Kahn–esque Germaine character delivers some of the easy chutzpah needed to carry these difficult passages. Augie Praley also does an excellently calculated, methodical job with Freddy, often pushing along otherwise difficult sections with his deliberate gestures and technique.
The art direction is truly spectacular. The period-specific costumes, well designed set, and odd special effects play well integrated supporting roles in the success of the performance. The music is a bit off—in a show that takes place in a French café, there isn’t a single cabaret or jazz song—but not offensive; you tend just not to notice it much.
Zach Binney’s Sagot character, a slightly manic French art collector, is a pleasant surprise. His off-focus work helps move along the slow parts, and his physical comedy is brilliant. Joel Putnam’s Gaston is well carried, if a bit poorly written. He has the sort of maxillary muscular control and plastic sinciput once requisite in all comedic sidekicks. And Emily Prannik’s delightfully physical interpretation of the Countess will have you falling out of your chair.
This is a very gesture-rich play; if sidelong looks and passionate gesticulation aren’t your thing, it might not be your sort of comedy. It was a rather ambitious choice for a college production, actually, frequently changing gears from basic low-comedy slapstick to Stephen Hawking–style “what is ‘is’?” sections. It can be difficult to keep track of which register they’re aiming at.
Over all, though, I’d strongly recommend paying a visit. You won’t get much of a Montmarte flavor out of it, and honestly, not much of a Picasso or an Einstein either, but you will have quite a good time.