October 20, 2018

Looking for the Genius in

One of the strangest anomalies in thetheater is that of the successful turkey — plays that areessentially trivial, gauche and insubstantial, but still manage toachieve a certain kind of notoriety and even commercial success.”Shear Madness,” which has been playing for 15 years in Boston, issuch a play; so was “Kvetch,” which completed a seven-year run in LosAngeles, the same city in which “Bleacher Bums” ran for 11 years.”Abie’s Irish Rose” racked up 2,854 performances on Broadway –although it’s depth could be measured with the first digit of one’spinky. “No Sex Please, We’re British,” which was the closest the WestEnd theater could came to eroticism, had a phenomenal run in London.”Ten Nights In a Barroom” started in 1858 and was a staple of stockand touring companies for decades afterward, and one of Hollywood’slongest recorded runs was a crude melodrama called “TheDrunkard.”

Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” nowrevived at the Wilshire Theater, does not yet qualify for the PrimeTurkey Award, but it is strongly in the running. It is a play inwhich mindlessness pays homage to mind and is essentially a testamentto Los Angeles’ slavish devotion to celebrity hype — not only SteveMartin’s but, in this case, Pablo Picasso’s, Albert Einstein’s andElvis Presley’s as well. It is the kind of entertainment thatcomforts nonthinking people into believing they are indulging in highintellectualism.

From left, Paul Provenza asPicasso and Mark Nelson as Einstein in “Picasso at the LapinAgile.” Photo by Joan Marcus

In 1904, at the legendary Lapin Agile, anassortment of geniuses and would-be geniuses gather to celebrate thebirth of modernity and the unbounded promise of the 20th century.(The great irony of this convocation is that we, at the end of thecentury, know just how ruinously it will end.) It is a time whengeniuses loom behind every glass of absinthe. Einstein is whimsicallyphilosophic; Picasso, fervently artistic; and Schmendiman, thepseudo-genius, ebulliently effusive. Each character has his littleturn and then cedes the stage to the next, belying the adage that onegood turn deserves another. In Martin’s play, the quality of the turnis irrelevant; the main thing is its ability to pass the time anddispense lighthearted patter.

It is a world very reminiscent of Saroyan’s “TheTime of Your Life,” in which a different set of bar-habituésgo through a similar round of unconnected episodes, alsophilosophizing about the vagaries of existence. But since Saroyan issomething of a genius and Martin only a jumped-up gag writer, thecomparison collapses about 20 minutes into the piece. The play,without being wired into some kind of developing character structure,is simply at the mercy of its gags, and no matter how surreally cutesome of them are, rootless comedy — like rootless drama — witherson the very bough from which its finest blossoms sprout.

To take seminal figures such as Einstein andPicasso and proceed to demonstrate how their influence affected theartistic and scientific character of the 20th century is atantalizing subject for a play — as is a dramatic exploration intothe nature of genius (both the real and the specious variety), butsuch a task assumes a philosophic grasp and intellectual edge, whichis wholly lacking in Martin. Failing to make any relevant connectionsbetween genius, art, science and postmodernism, the play dwindlesinto high-class graffiti — a doodle around ideas that the authorhasn’t the skill either to develop or to focus.

As if dragged down to his natural level, Martin,at the close, introduces a time-traveling Elvis Presley, and,although irrelevant to the play’s premise, his appearance is relevantto the author’s inescapable show-biz orientation. He is much morecomfortable in Elvis’ society than he ever was in the Left Bank worldof French bohemia. After the singer’s arrival and the detonation of afew striking special effects, the play stops, rather than resolves,like a man so confused by his own circular argument that he finallyopts to jump off the merry-go-round because even he has hadenough.

Randall Arney’s production is, if anything, moreintolerable than the one I originally saw at the Geffen (thenWestwood) Playhouse in 1995. Then, the piece was chewed, aerated andpopped like the squiggly wad of bubble gum it actually was. But, now,after engagements in Boston and New York, it returns to Los Angeleslike a minor masterpiece, full of meaningful pauses and strainedattempts at sentiment and pathos. Originally a protracted “SaturdayNight Live” sketch about geniuses, it is now convinced that it isitself a work of art and, unfortunately, treats itselfaccordingly.

Mark Nelson, as Einstein, confers more comicnuance and subtle characterization than the piece deserves; he’s asterling example of how a chewed-up sow’s ear, in the hands of atalented actor, can be turned into a silk purse. Paul Provenza seemsto feel that the only way to express the gem-like flame of Pablo’sPicasso genius is to use it to launch flares. His performance, likethat of Michael Oosterom’s Schmendiman and Ken Grantham’s Sago, theart-dealer, are monotonously exuberant throughout. Susannah Schulman,in three contrasting roles, mercifully manages to vary and refine hergusto.

Ultimately, the play is another prime example ofLos Angeles’ unique alchemy — the city’s unfailing ability to turncrocks of manure into crocks of gold.

Charles Marowitz, a regular contributor for In

Theater magazine, writes fromMalibu.

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