Picasso at the Lapin Agile

In 1904, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso — both destined to be the biggest names in their fields in the 20th century — were on the verge of their greatest work.

What if they had met, and somehow sensed they were about to change the world through their science and art?

That’s the premise of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” a wiggy comedy by Steve Martin that is every bit as cerebral and inventively odd as the comedian who wrote it.

The setting is a Paris bar owned by Freddy (Max Robinson). Picasso (Jonathan Hammond) is apparently a regular customer. On this particular night, Einstein (Sean Arbuckle) comes in, planning to meet someone. The thing is, he told her to meet him at a different bar. But according to his line of thinking, the probability of her coming to this bar on accident is just as great as the probability of her going to the right bar on purpose — so it doesn’t matter where he waits for her.

That gives you a pretty good sense of the type of ridiculously silly, yet often marvelously layered and intelligent humor used in the play.

Another example: Germaine (Joyce Cohen), Freddy’s waitress and girlfriend, makes predictions about the 20th century, every one of which is dead-on accurate. Tossed in on her list, just for the sake of oddness, is that “cruelty will be perfected.”

Hammond plays Picasso as as swaggering self-parody, a man so sexy he can hardly stand himself. He’s a womanizer, but he gets away with it because he can draw. His strutting and preening are hilarious.

As Einstein, Arbuckle is a good-natured, slightly scatterbrained physicist. He and Picasso are at odds at first, until they realize that what they each do is beautiful in its own way.

The question becomes, If these will be the two big names in the 20th century, who will be the third? These things always come in threes, after all. A loud, clownish inventor named Schmendiman (Frank Gerrish) says it’s him, but his main project is an “inflexible and brittle building material made of equal parts asbestos, kitten paws and radium.”

The third corner of the triangle is revealed later, at a moment when both the play and the great-looking set (designed by George Maxwell) suddenly become more detailed and meaningful than you’d previously thought.

The play comments on talent, genius and celebrity, and hints at which one is most important in the 20th century. It’s a fitting end to a century that had much fun and frivolity, but which, upon closer inspection, had quite a bit to chew on, too — just like the play.

John Fiedler, who plays a gentle old lech named Gaston in this production, has quite a lengthy list of credits, both in TV and film. (Click on his name above to see the Internet Movie Database listing.) But what tipped me off that he'd done other work was when I realized his voice sounded exactly like Piglet in the "Winnie the Pooh" cartoons. So I checked, and sure enough, that's him.

I was in a student production of this play in 1997, and I had a great time. It's a fairly large cast, and I was performing with many people who were my friends, directed by my pal and Garrens associate Joel R. Wallin. I played Schmendiman, which was a fun part. This was the first time I'd seen the show in its entirety (we had to cut a lot of stuff for time, and because some of it's kinda dirty), and I quite enjoyed it. It's a brilliantly funny play.

By the way: "Lapin Agile" is French for "nimble rabbit," more or less, which is a very Steve Martinian name for a bar.