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A superb cast brings ‘Picasso at the Lapin Agile’ to life

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: “Two guys walk into a bar…,” well, I won’t go on because you can probably think of dozens of scenarios and punch lines that follow an old-joke opening like that.

But, maybe not when the two guys are modernist painter Pablo Picasso and mathematical and science theorist Albert Einstein. Stand-up comic, “Saturday Night Live” regular, movie star and banjo player-turned-playwright Steve Martin’s first play, 1993’s absurd “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” is about the two 20th century icons and imagined discussions they had one night at the fabled Paris bistro. History tells us they never met. No matter. The play’s premise is irresistible.

Lapin Agile was a gathering place for pimps, anarchists, eccentrics of various stripes and starving artists. Amedeo Modigliani and Maurice Utrillo, it is said, often traded pencil sketches for multicolored aperitifs. Chansonniers sang their ballads and pensive poets found an audience.

Matthew LaChiusa’s American Repertory Theater has made its tiny basement home into an old, woody, used and opinion-friendly Lapin Agile. LaChiusa directs a superbly cast ensemble, certainly one of the best of this theater season: the exemplary quintet of David Mitchell, Diane DeBernardo-Blenk, Michael Leszcyzynski, Keith Wharton and Matthew Chavez – the last a witty, brainy, savvy Einstein – plus Leacel Hillenbrand, Stefan Brundage, Eric Mowery and Sean Marciniak, as an egocentric, mumbling, untrustworthy and often unlikable Picasso.

Martin’s fantasized Picasso and Einstein are both in their mid-20s, both under the radar. Einstein had notes on his yet-to-be-published “Theory of Relativity” stuffed in every pocket; the womanizing Picasso was already prolific with his art but still relatively unknown. But on this night in 1904 in the Lapin Agile – “nimble rabbit” – the spurned Suzanne, fuming at the flirting Pablo, gave Einstein one of the cubist’s drawings. “I never thought the 20th century would be handed to me so casually,” he muttered.

Yet arguments raged through the night about art vs. science and the importance of each, about the creative process and each other’s legacies, sex, money, the century to come. Others chimed in: bartender Freddy, slow but ultimately profound; Gaston, an old man with prostate problems, a self-appointed expert on women and who often offered his own terse summary of the debated philosophies; the wise, sultry barmaid, Germaine; the street-smart art dealer, Sagot; the confident but clueless inventor, Schmendinman, striving to become “the third genius in the room;” and a time-traveling country boy from the future, a blue-suede shoed messenger of possible danger ahead in the coming decades. Queried, he merely shrugged and added darkly: “You’ll find out.”

These characters come and go rapidly, but when they first appear, each dominates for long, informative minutes. LaChiusa has seen how important this is. He also shuts down quickly any hint of pretension. Don’t take any of these tirades seriously, he seems to say, and his cast is tuned in beautifully to the goofy and the complex, having a great time and fun in the process. ART has a winner here.

Who wins the art-science debate? The creative act itself seems to come out on top in this engaging, sometimes sophomoric and polemic mix of laughs and thoughtfulness.

Then again, maybe Gaston’s point should be seriously considered.

THEATER REVIEW

3.5 stars (out of 4)

What: “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”

Who: American Repertory Theater of WNY

Where: 16 Linwood Ave.

When: Through March 28

Tickets: $15-$20

Info: 634-1102

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