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ON THIN ICE

PICASSO AT THE LAPINE AGILE ** 1/2

WHAT: Steve Martin's comedy about a fictional meeting between Picasso and Einstein in Paris in 1904

WHEN: Through Oct. 8

WHERE: Studio Arena Theatre, 710 Main St.

ADMISSION: $22-$42

INFO: 856-8025

Very credible people have told me what an absolute laugh-riot Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapine Agile" is. But first time through, I wasn't laughing. Second time through - on a different night - I got a few chortles, a guffaw or two and maybe one sustained bit of laughter. And most of this came in Act II. I like Martin, but even his most ardent admirers have to admit he enjoys flirting with comic collapse. "Picasso at the Lapine Agile" (Nimble Rabbit), a fanciful tale of a 1904 meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein, is all zany characters and no plot. Characters don't so much interact as lay out lines for one another. When they're not doing that they look mighty extraneous. As in much of Martin's writing, the play is strung on regressions, barely relevant riffs and arbitrary interjections, some funny, some not so funny.

Sometimes the dialogue gets spun out into wonderfully extended monologues and absurd skits. Einstein's mock-scientific rambling on the merits of letter-shaped pies is one delightful example. And the "gun-slinger" stand-off between Picasso and Einstein wielding pencils is deliciously ridiculous.

But it is still a wobbly scaffolding that Martin erects, and it requires very sharp comedic talent to hold it up. Among the best in this uneven cast is Noel Johansen, who makes his Einstein a very appealing character indeed. Ed. Simone ably paints the bombastic art dealer Sagot in broad vaudevillian strokes. In a part with some lame lines, Jim Mohr is a very credible and amusing Gaston.

Jack Marshall's Picasso comes on like a party animal. His energy and high spirits as Picasso are fun to watch, but he needs to convey a bit of that famous Picasso intensity if he expects us to believe he gets all those girls.

The two characters behind the bar, Germaine and Freddy, look like they wandered in from old TV sitcoms. Barbara McCulloh's obnoxious count-the-cadence acting is one notch below Markie Post's rendition of Christine on "Night Court," and Robert Rutland's lurching, over-loud, table-slamming Freddy has less subtlety than Herb Edelman playing Stanley Zbornik on "Golden Girls." Under this double assault from sitcomville, it's little wonder that Mohr begins to resemble Fish (Abe Vegoda) from the old "Barney Miller" show.

Jenny Maguire (Suzanne, the Countess and an admirer) errs with her faint Ann-Margret-as-tart imitation. Scott Duffy does a reasonable turn as the mysterious Visitor.

More damaging is Brad Bellamy's Schmendiman, Martin's whackiest character. Schmendiman is a self-appointed genius who has invented an "inflexible" building material made of "asbestos, cats' paws and radium." Schmendiman's ridiculous world should reverberate through the rest of the play, making everybody else seem, by comparison, marginally sane. Bellamy - and director Gavin Cameron-Webb must take much of the responsibility here - does this as a slam-bang bit with none of the comic inflection that the part demands.

One unmitigated success is the set. Russell Metheny's giant rendition of Van Gogh's "The Cafe at Arles" that opens the play is resplendent.

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