So Picasso and Einstein walk into a bar...

History and hilarity collide in the Stage TLV production of Steve Martin’s award-winning play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile."

THE CAST of The Stage TLV’s production of ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile.’ (photo credit: NEIL GOLDSTEIN)
THE CAST of The Stage TLV’s production of ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile.’
(photo credit: NEIL GOLDSTEIN)
As a youngster in 1960s Britain, I’d eagerly await Saturday evenings – in the winter when Shabbat went out early – so I could catch the new episode of the original series of Doctor Who. I wanted to see where the white-haired time lord would end up next in his police boxshaped Tardis spaceship, and which civilization he’d encounter. I began fantasizing about nipping all over the chronological show, and which great historical characters I might chance upon.
If you happen to be in the environs of Ramat Aviv this evening or tomorrow evening (both 8 p.m.,), and you harbor a similar dream, you may be able to assuage that wish, to a degree, by popping along to the The Rozin Community Center, where The Stage acting group, in collaboration with director Amber Gitter and producer Neil Goldstein, will present Picasso at the Lapin Agile.
The award-winning comedy was written by Steve Martin in 1993 – in fact it was his debut as a writer. It was an auspicious entry for Martin into that side of the entertainment business and it was a smash hit everywhere it played, from the original Chicago run to its nine-month berth in Los Angeles, before it made it over to New York where it landed the 1996 Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Off Broadway Play.
The play is based on a plausible encounter between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, in a bar called Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit), which is located in Montmartre, Paris. The storyline is set in 1904, when the district was well known for its watering holes and cabaret establishments, in short, a perfectly appropriate part of the world for the legendary scientist and artist to cross paths. It was also just before Einstein and Picasso – played respectively in the The Stage production by Shahar Ifhar and Ben (Yumen) Muller – hit the headlines with the theory of relativity and the painter’s masterly and ground shaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.
The substratum confluence in the work sounds very much like the tried and tested joke opener format, something along the lines of “Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso walk into a bar....” It duly appears tailor-made to produce a bucketload of hilarity.
“It’s a phenomenal play, and I bet Albert Einstein and Picasso would have been great to spend time with in a bar, drinking,” laughs Gitter. “Steve Martin wrote the play when he was getting a divorce, and he wrote it really quickly. Maybe he needed something to take his mind of that, and that’s why he wrote the play. I don’t know for sure.”
Once written, the production started life in Chicago, at the Steppenwolf Theater, a place the director knows well. In fact, getting down to devising her own reading of the play has been a long time coming for fortysomething Gitter. The director hails from the Windy City and studied at Columbia College Chicago. As a budding member of the theatrical profession she was keen to get a handle on the cutting edge stuff coming through, and was a regular patron of the Steppenwolf Theater, a place known for putting on avant garde and left-field works.
“That’s how I became familiar with this play, because I actually saw the premiere of the play in 1993,” Gitter notes. “I actually saw the original production with the original cast. When I saw this play I fell in love with it.”
Over two decades later, Gitter is now getting to proffer her own rendition of the work which, she admits, while appealing to her very strongly, is not exactly perfect.
“Steve Martin is a genius, so it’s like a genius writing about two geniuses, which is pretty amazing. But the play does have some flaws in it. It’s not the strongest plot in the world, but you kind of let that go because the idea is still phenomenal.”
Gitter says her training, and the artistic milieu in which she grew up, have left their mark on her approach to directing.
“The Chicago theater community is a very unique community, and has a different style of approaching theater.
It was a very interesting way of theater for me. It’s very democratic.
Stage directors want to hear actors’ opinions. I think you end up with a very stale production if it all comes only from the director. I think you end up with a better product if you listen to everyone.”
In fact Gitter has a few people to bend an ear to.
“We have a huge cast of 11 people, from all walks of life,” she says. One of the actors came to the Martin play with some pretty stellar stuff in his CV. Brett Loewenstern, who recently made aliya from the United States, took part in Season 10 of American Idol and made it all the way through to the final 24. In Picasso at the Lapin Agile he plays the part of a young woman whom the egotistical Picasso naturally assumes to be an admirer of his when, in fact, she is more interested in Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, a young inventor with huge dreams but little in the way of actual knowhow.
The latter character is played by Guy Seemann.
“Yes, it’s great having Brett in the cast, but the whole cast is really wonderful,” says Gitter. “Everyone contributes.”
Considering the principal characters were lauded for their intellectual as well as creative powers Martin may have been tempted to slip the odd brain teaser into the storyline fabric.
Gitter says that, while the main protagonists are clearly giants of their respective fields, the play is presented in a generally user friendly format.
“Martin did a hell of a lot of research before writing the play, and people who know anything about Einstein or Picasso will pick up on the one-liners, and names and references, will know there is some intellect in that. But it is simple enough so that anyone who is not aware of all that will enjoy it.”
That is an approach which would probably have met with Einstein’s approval. The scientist was an advocate of simplicity, once sagely noting that: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
Fun though it may be, Picasso at the Lapin Agile is not for all ages. While there is no nudity in the play there is a certain amount of adult content in the script. But the patrons at this week’s two performances should enjoy the repartee as well as the eye-catching physical high jinks.
“The play appeals to all ages and all levels,” says Gitter. “It’s an absurd play and it’s pretty physical too.” Sounds like Martin, and Gitter, have all entertainment bases covered.
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