Picasso at the Lapin Agile: Expecting the Best

Mary Moody Northen Theatre, through July 18
Running time: 1 hr, 30 min

Picasso at the Lapin Agile: Expecting the Best

When mankind looks back upon the 20th century, will it see 100 years of wars? One hundred years of continuing imperialism and subjugation? Or, as playwright Steve Martin suggests through his buoyant, if slightly off-center characters, a century where creativity and the power of thought overtook humanity's darker nature and turned the last 100 years into an era of art, science, and the betterment of mankind?

Through two particularly important creative geniuses of this dying century, Picasso and Einstein (and a third, blue-suede-shoed late addition), Martin creates a highly entertaining and quirky little play filled with his unique, off-kilter sense of humor and a warmth of possibility. These two young geniuses-in-the-making chance to meet in a typical Parisian bar at a moment in time just as each is ready to shift the way the world looks at everything. Einstein still works in the patent office but is gearing up for his "Special Theory of Relativity." Picasso is still in his blue period (and is costumed with a comic wink by Glenn Avery Breed as if the artist has just walked out of one of his own paintings). Their personal worlds are full of young women, wine, and a sense that they will accomplish something great. The air of expectancy throughout the play is palpable. Forget that it is set in 1904: The hope for humanity expressed by the mixed bag of regulars and guests at the little bar, the Lapin Agile, has just as much impact as we head into the next century, full of global anticipation.

Jose Marenco as Einstein and Sacha Bodner as Picasso lead the student-full cast with mature, strong performances. Matthew Addison Cross as the quirky French bachelor and barfly Gaston is as much fun to watch as the late-arriving Singer, Jason Newman, embodying the young Elvis Presley with evident glee. Shirley Reynolds, as matron of the bar Germaine, and Jennifer Schomer as Picasso's hot-date in waiting, Suzanne, prove to be more than mere playthings of this supposed man's world: Everyone appears ready to throw away the old model for the impending changes and glorious potential of a new century.

The entire evening is full of laughs and gags, and a near-innocent romanticism peppered with playwright Martin's playful ironic twists; although one clearly senses that the depth of experience embodied in the writing is not shared by the young cast, despite their exuberant and dedicated performances. Director Melba Martinez has succesfully translated the positive energy of the characters into her young actors, but almost every speech involves the speaker's moving about the stage while talking, which often dulls Martin's bright language: a monotony of motion, most un-Einsteinian, with the relative effect of allowing time to drag here and there. These keen cast members may learn one day that standing still and delivering one's lines can be an even stronger choice. Still, there are plenty of well-wrought comic moments, and a few touching ones, and as you exit the theatre and see all of Austin spread out before you, the magic of this fictitious Parisian rendezvous can't help but convince you that the best is still to come, and not all that far away. -- Robi Polgar

Scenes from the New World -- Three Short Plays by Eric Bogosian: Pimps and Prostitutes Just Out of Reach

Scenes from the New World

John Henry Faulk Living Theatre,
through July 24
Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

The desolate city streets littered with trash and splattered with hope, the throb of a neon sign, the cheap stench of booze and drugs and sex for sale -- playwright Eric Bogosian has staggered down these alleyways, dug through these Dumpsters, drank with these people -- and he loves to tell the tale. His wry, often snarling observations of this gritty American cityscape have resulted in acclaim and a slew of memorable characters -- including the lowlifes of his corrosive one-man show Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and the high school burnouts of his play subUrbia. All the attention has also garnered Bogosian acting slots in Hollywood films like Under Siege and Beavis and Butt-head Do America. So it's not surprising that the playwright's most recent work, Scenes From the New World, combines these two aspects of his life in the Nineties -- a familiarity with both the country's seamy underbelly and Tinseltown's elite --into a larger meditation on America's quickly emptying soul. Perhaps dealing with the vultures of both those societies led to a rather generous act on the playwright's part. Bogosian posted a notice on his Web site (http://www.ericbogosian.com) that reads: "If you are interested in doing a student or a nonprofit production of [Scenes From the New World], then we give it to you royalty-free."
Lucky for Flame Failure Productions, who have since become the first company in the state to take advantage of the playwright's soft spot for artistic underdogs. The resulting production is one of which the author would most likely approve, filled with flashes of insight and inspiration, if burdened by some uneven production values. The play takes place in three contrasting locales: a crime-riddled ghetto, a posh New York lunch spot, and the hectic office of a Hollywood power player. With the same actors playing vastly different characters in each vignette, Bogosian and director Ronnie Moore fiddle with the notion that whether their characters are wearing torn-up fishnets or a silk suit, they are all pimps and prostitutes. Along the way, Scenes also comments astutely on the way in which our modern familiarity with pain and pleasure via television and movies has numbed us to their presence in real life. These worlds splayed open for our inspection are, quite frankly, nothing shocking. Still, the author's off-kilter, intriguing style, coupled with the surehanded narration of Judson L. Jones, make the evening an unpredictable affair, frequently funny and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, Scenes From the New World is pockmarked by those things that keep a good show down. The mostly capable cast, buoyed by stand-out performances from Christopher Meister as a perverse Hollywood elite and from Jones, can't quite deliver on every character. While each seems to shine in one segment, few can make the transitions among all three, and even fewer can pull off the hardened street edge crucial to the opening sequence. Furthermore, while the crew manages three impressive set changes, not enough attention is paid to the details of each set. In a scene which finds three power-hungry friends at lunch slavering over their eventual world domination, simple things like a wrinkled tablecloth and glassware bought at Wal-Mart undercuts the sense of sophistication and glamour Bogosian was clearly juxtaposing with the previous ghetto scene. Flame Failure is an ambitious theatre group, a company who just last year tackled the seemingly impossible: a year-long serial with installments each month (Flame Failure: The Silent War). It's clear that the group's spark and creativity is fueling an interesting lineup of work; just imagine what might happen when their grasp catches up with their reach. --Sarah Hepola

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