A Painter and A Physicist Walk Into a Bar . . .

The art dealer Sagot (Mick Tinder, left) views the work of Albert Einstein (Eric Lucas) in
The art dealer Sagot (Mick Tinder, left) views the work of Albert Einstein (Eric Lucas) in "Picasso at the Lapin Agile." (By Ray Gniewek)
By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 10, 2006

Keegan Theatre might not bring anything new to its production of Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," but then, the often-staged and thought-provoking comedy/fantasy is pretty much perfect as it is. One wonders what the accomplished group finds of interest in such a community theater staple since it usually tackles imposing classics or challenging newer works. Maybe they just did it for the fun of it. Fair enough. We can all share in the fun.

For the few who have not seen it, this 1993 play takes us back to 1904 at the Lapin Agile, a Paris hangout for artists and writers that still exists. The 20th century may have dawned on the calendar as the play opens, but -- as Martin proposes -- it was not yet really born. It would be left to Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein to revolutionize art and science and thus usher in the new century, he postulates. Their breakthroughs were looming as we share a fictional evening of conversation with them and other bar denizens. Picasso's "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon," the cubist masterpiece that redefined art, was just three years off, and Einstein's "The Special Theory of Relativity" would be published about a year after Martin's fanciful encounter.

Each is brimming with zeal and youthful vigor, and more than a little ego. In one of the highlights encapsulating the play's combination of clever comedy and seemingly provocative commentary, the two end a debate with a gunslinger-like duel, bar patrons scrambling for cover as they each whip out a pencil and begin scribbling. Picasso forms an artistic doodle and Einstein writes out a physics code. As they compare their work, Picasso dismisses Einstein's notation by sniffing, "Yours is just a formula." "So is yours!" roars Einstein, the hesitant genius surprising himself with his boldness.

Martin creates thoughtful dialogue on the subject of art versus science as the leading force for the century, until he has a special visitor take matters into another realm by introducing an unexpected concept that trumps both. In the hands of director Scott D. Pafumi, it is all skillfully rendered and certainly pleasing.

Keegan Theatre is something of a family-and-friends affair, with two sets of married couples in some of the roles and even a representative of a second generation from the group's extended theatrical family playing a small part. That's hugely responsible for the warm ambiance one always finds at a Keegan performance, and the real-life intimacy of the company contributes to strong onstage relationships as well. Eric Lucas, equally skilled as playwright, director and actor, takes on the Einstein role and plays him as a socially awkward man whose overflowing brain is beginning to impart a new confidence. One wishes Lucas had let his hair grow out, which would have allowed the play's funniest sight gag to succeed. Keegan artistic director Mark Rhea is Picasso, playing him with a touch of dissolute anxiety that undermines the artist's storied animal magnetism somewhat, while still capturing his artistic energy.

Susan Marie Rhea stands out as a randy barmaid, adding spirit and color to a thinly written and smallish role. Rhea is unusually versatile. She has handled some very dramatic work with skill and depth, but she also possesses a generally untapped and wild comedic streak. Working as a core member of one theater group, she sometimes sacrifices her talents in support of the troupe by taking on smaller roles, such as this one, when she might be getting juicier parts elsewhere. It's hard to imagine Keegan without her, but let's hope she finds more starring roles in upcoming seasons.

"Picasso at the Lapin Agile," performed by Keegan Theatre, continues through Aug. 19 at Gunston Arts Center, Theatre Two, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Showtime is 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call 703-892-0202 or e-mailboxoffice@keegantheatre.com. For more information, visithttp://www.keegantheatre.com.

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