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Theater: A Toast to the 20th Century

Steve Martin's turn-of-the-century time trip

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With only three plays to his credit as a playwright, Steve Martin's appeal on a theater marquee remains a testament to his fame as a comedian, screenwriter and actor. In time, however, Martin may be as respected for his work in the theater as he is in any other capacity. Having conquered one medium after another with welcome upheavals of the world of stand-up comedy and television variety, and a full range of film credits ranging from the vanguard archetype of film dumbe with The Jerk to the more sophisticated repartee of Roxanne, it should come as no surprise that Martin can deliver a refreshing take on stage humor.

Martin has always emphasized his "thinking man's comedy," finding ironic humor in dim-witted characters and prepping his audiences for the emergence of the less marketable intelligent hero. In some ways, Picasso at the Lapin Agile takes Martin's unique art to a logical next step, littering the stage with a variety of geniuses, from painters and scientists to salesman and singers. Martin employs the perspective-bending vision of his two protagonists -- Einstein and Picasso -- to turn time back on itself and offer a view into the forces shaping the 20th century.

Martin's presence on the stage -- even when he is only evident as the presence between the lines -- is a welcome relief to an art form too quickly abandoned whenever a talented practitioner gets a foot in a Hollywood stage door. Martin is the antithesis to the celebrity opportunist, finding frustrations with screenwriting stemming from the fact that "it's always about moving on as fast as possible, without any kind of straying. Playwriting, you can do a 10-minute dissertation on the inner tube if you can make it interesting."

Martin keeps it interesting, and funny, grounding the play in a turn-of-the-century (the last one) bistro populated by the artistic crowd. At the center of the play is a fictional meeting between Einstein and Picasso as young men, each on the verge of breakthroughs, a year before producing "The Special Theory of Relativity" and three years before Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, respectively. The entertainment comes from the boggling riffs jammed out from various exchanges, including appearances by lovers, bartenders, old cranks and inventors. As Picasso declares, "This is the night that rocked the world to the beat of conversation!"

Director John Ashton's cast navigates through the choppy waters of fast-paced comic dialogue with an impeccable sense of timing. The cast are generous with each other on stage -- an actual Denver bar, employing Ashton's love of "environmental theater" -- sharing the spotlight, letting the "common folk" shine just as brightly as the star geniuses. There's a delightful balance in the juxtaposition between a Picasso/Einstein exchange about "dreaming the impossible and putting it into effect" and a did-so-did-not exchange between the barkeep and his lover as they debate whether it's her post-romanticism or neo-romanticism that has gotten the two into hot water.

Martin embraces the kindred spirit of creativity and imagination found both in the artist and the scientist. Whether in the doodles on a napkin or the visionary painting that bursts out of Picasso's imagination onto the stage, whether in Einstein's appreciation of an obscure punchline or his accidental revelation about the surprise ending of his book concerning curved space and the mass of light, Martin's witty and captivating jams enthrall audiences and spark our minds to flame. But it falls finally to the barkeep to put the 20th century in perspective, declaring that "no political movement will be as interesting as the movement of the line across the paper, the note across the staff, or the idea across the mind."

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