Let's Do the Time Warp . . .
Back to when Steve Martin was actually funny
I've always been a fan of Steve Martin'sself-penned early films—The Jerk, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, The Man With Two Brains, L.A. Story— and even spun his Comedy Is Not Pretty LP ad nauseam. Martin was zany, over-the-top and often so stupid that he was genius. I also saw a production of his 1993 play, Picasso At the Lapin Agile, more than a decade ago, and I remember liking it. So I was dumbfounded as to why, only 20 minutes into the Maverick Theater's sold-out performance of Picasso, I began the check-watch-every-15-minutes routine. And I think I've come up with the unfortunate reason: Martin, though an undeniable comedic legend, is dated. (One look at his Pink Panther remake seals the deal.)
Hey, it happens. It happened to George Burns and Jerry Lewis. It certainly happened to George Carlin, even Richard Pryor. (Tried sitting through Pryor's Live In Concert show recently, the one so uproariously funny in 1979? Now, not so much.) The good news is that Lapin isn't really a comedy. There are gags—well-worn ones—but there are also some moderately philosophical moments, and the whole situation is ripe for mining. The bad news is that Martin didn't take his excavating far enough.
Set in 1904 at the French dive bar Le Lapin Agile (a real bar in Montmarte where you can have a drink and be serenaded by Frenchies), the story imagines a surreal encounter between Picasso and Einstein, both of whom were on the verge of becoming megastars in their respective fields. The egotistic Picasso butts heads with the confident Einstein over women and whose talents are more important, and there's some general banter among the other bar patrons about getting old, getting laid and getting their hands on the newest, hottest artistic works.
One of the cleverer bits is when all the bar characters imagine what the 20th Century will look like—with only the barmaid, Germaine, getting it right: commercial air flight, microchips and, the most unimaginable of all, no smoking in restaurants. The cast, of course, decry her silly musings. It's funny, witty dialogue, but it's often hard to understand, because while the cast members are clearly gifted actors, they're clearly dreadful with fake French accents. Only David Chorley's Einstein is able to stick to his German clucking; every time another actor slips, it sucks you out of the play like a Hoover.
The play itself is an uneven combination of tepid jokes, textbook relationship quandaries and a dash of poignant thought—which is its strongest yet Spartan suit. It's almost as if Martin wanted to write a more meaningful piece, but then pulled out. The chief sign of this comes at the end, when, out of nowhere, a time portal opens up and a legendary rock singer emerges to “deliver a message.” Using such a tired icon is pedestrian, to say the least—forget that he really doesn't deliver any message. Why Martin failed to deliver—message, plot line, story—and settled on gags and cavorting is a mystery. (Even his goofiest films at least had a direction.) In Lapin, we never know what anyone wants, although we know what they'll eventually get—which might work if it were any fun watching them get it. As it is, Martin's play is only slightly more fun than seeing a guy prance around stage with an arrow through his head.
Which was also uproariously funny. In 1979.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the Maverick Theater, 110 E. Walnut Ave., Fullerton, (714) 526-7070; www.mavericktheater.com. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., ?3 N 8 p.m. Through Aug. 31. $10-$20.