Great Leaps of the Imagination in Art and Science in the 20th Century

The Novato Theater Company is currently presenting Steve Martin's first full length play which he wrote in 1993, Picasso at the Lapin Agile.  His play features the characters of Albert Einstein (Jason Dorie) and Pablo Picasso (Robert Nelson) who meet at a bar called the Lapin Agile in Montmartre, Paris.  It is set on October 8, 1904 and both men are on the verge of an amazing idea (Einstein will publish his special theory of relativity in 1905 and Picasso will paint Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907).  When they find themselves at the Lapin Agile, they have a lengthy debate about the value of genius and talent while interacting with a host of other characters.  Each character in Lapin Agile performs a specific function, for example Schmendiman (Philip Ferrero) is an inventor who believes he is a genius but really knows very little, while Gaston (John Conway), an amicable old Frenchman with prostrate problems, is hesitant to listen or believe anything that does not revolve around sex or drinking.

There is much discussion of the shaping of the 20th century.  Picasso obviously represents art, Einstein science and Schmendiman represents commercialism.  Picasso and Einstein eventually realize their abilities are equally valuable.  

Once the main characters have had their moments of insight, "The Visitor" (Phillip Swanson), a man from the future crashes the party.  The Visitor is never named but his identity can be surmised as Elvis Presley.  The Visitor adds a third dimension to Picasso and Einstein's debate representing the idea that genius is not always the product of academic or philosophical understanding.

According to playwright Steve Martin, "Focusing on Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity and Picasso's master painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, my play attempts to explain in a light hearted way the similarity of the creative process involved in great leaps of imagination in art and science." 

Director Jerrie Patterson has certainly directed her talented cast in the spirit of fun and lightheartedness. In order of appearance they are Freddie, the owner and bartender of the Lapin Agile played by Jeffrey Orth in a very amiable performance; Gaston, an older man, John Conway is very funny as an aging womanizer; Germaine, Monique Sims, waitress and Freddie's wife, gives a coquettish performance.  In spite of the title, the character who commands the play is not Picasso, but Einstein. As played by Jason Dorie, Einstein is a little man neatly buttoned up who appears to be polite.  He observes all, listens with care and would seem to be shy.  Suzanne (Melissa Claire), a young woman searching for Picasso gives a sexy and sultry performance.  Most outstanding of all is Joseph Hoeber as Sagot, Picasso's art dealer who is slick and powerful and steals the show. 

Picasso (Robert Nelson), the person everyone's waiting for doesn't come on until the play is almost half over.  Though decently played by Nelson, the character as written never realizes the strength, status and robust magntism assigned to him.  Phillip Ferrero totally cuts loose as the successful and completely over the top Schmendiman--representative of people who invented commonplace things but lives forever in obscurity.  One final performance is Sarah Nelson cast in two roles as both the Countess Einstein's patron, and a Female Visitor in contrasting performances.  The set design by Gary Gonser and Jerrie Patterson features a realistic bar and delightful painting of sheep in the meadow. Jerrie Paterson's direction, like her costuming, is tip-top from the first moment to the grand finale.  

Picasso at the Lapin Agile runs through June 19 at the Novato Theater Company Playhouse, 484 Ignacio Blvd., Novato.  Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For reservations, call 415-883-4498 or go online at

Flora Lynn Isaacson