Steve Martin isn’t exactly known for being the king of subtle comedy. Best remembered for his broad, prop fueled stand-up specials and slapstick antics during the golden age of Saturday Night Live, the comic — a major collector of American modern art — slowly allowed himself to be watered down in the 1990s and 2000s, succumbing to broad, crowd-pleasing big budget movies such as “Father of the Bride” and the rather more excruciating “Sgt. Bilko.” He has also written a handful of books, including the slim and mediocre novella of 2000 entitled “Shopgirl,” which was made into a shopworn film of the same name — most probably on the basis of a promise from Martin that he himself would star.
Martin remains a popular artist for audiences of a certain age for whom the “wild and crazy guy” is still a nostalgic draw but, much like Robin Williams and other subversive geniuses of that era, has more recently been seen as something of a Disneyfied and self-caricaturing hack by a hipper, more contemporary crowd. Along with his old friend Martin Short, he has been playing to a broader and increasingly less sophisticated audience since at least 1991. It was a shrewd if not entirely principled choice for Martin. Those Rothko, Kline and Hockney paintings aren’t getting any cheaper to acquire.
What does all this have to do with Oregon Cabaret Theatre’s production of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile”? Well, rather a lot, it turns out. The show is a flamboyant blast, a combination of silliness and refinement that makes clear its author’s grasp of good comedy. The actors at Cabaret are superb, as usual, and the premise — a meeting of art and science in the form of Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein squaring off gamely at a Montmartre nightspot called the Lapin Agile (a real venue, incidentally, that has existed in various forms since the late 19th century) — is a seductive concept. One goes into it expecting a rather brilliant show.
But Martin’s self-conscious fingerprints are all over the show, and one feels as though he is straining to make his ego heard. As a result, plot lines are messy, and the overall impression is that one shouldn’t overthink the proceedings, but rather sit back and let the sloppy blows of Martin’s writing land wherever they so choose. Not many of the punchlines got me at a gut level, although the overall pace and feel of the show made for some good entertainment.
As Picasso, Stephan Espinosa is supremely conceited while still managing to be likeable and vulnerable. He starts off his night as an Al Pacino-esque brawler, strutting and spitting, but tones it down when he is in seduction mode — which is often — or when talking about the process and meaning of art. Espinosa is a very good actor who handles his role as the most iconic artist of the last two centuries with nuance and respect.
As Albert Einstein, Stephen Kline steals much of the show, playing the German physicist as a kind of coke-fueled neurotic. Einstein is not yet the established genius of his century, and is slaving away in a menial job. Kline handles that conflict well, dripping sweat and taking names, a tormented ranter who periodically trounces everyone else in the room with a brilliant riddle or a piercing analysis. Kline as Einstein reminds me of what might happen if a young Bradley Whitford were fed a few drinks and then cast in a Woody Allen movie.
As Gaston, a graying and pervasively incontinent denizen of the Lapin, Paul Jones is wonderful. Mr. Jones, who has a prolific theater background, is in his first production at the Cabaret and should be watched carefully. He’s an excellent addition to the company.
Oregon Cabaret’s own executive director, Rick Robinson, is a great straight man as Freddy, the owner of the Lapin Agile, sporting mutton chops and doing his best to hold the ship on course as its larger-than-life habituates float away on a sea of cheap booze. Galloway Stevens is phenomenal as Picasso’s egocentric agent, Sagot, and Sierra Wells — playing various roles, most convincingly as Picasso’s swooning conquest — is endearing and delightful.
Supporting members of the cast, with fewer lines but equal talents, are Karen Jean Olds as Freddy’s long suffering wife, Germaine, Paul Michael Garcia as the wildly over-the-top bespectacled and lisping Charles Dabernow Schmendiman (also coming off as a movie staple, this time as a coke-fueled Wallace Shaw) and John Alan Hubert as “A Visitor,” playing another exalted icon of the 20th century — a surprise twist that I will not be giving away here.
The show is a hell of a lot of fun, and if you don’t fixate too hard on Martin’s conspicuous writing style and attempts at absurdist comedy, you’re more or less guaranteed to have a fun and not too taxing night at the theater.
Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.