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Steve Martin's 'Picasso' is big fun at CSUS

Big ideas are rarely funny.

Insightful? Sure.

Beautiful? Sometimes.

Inspiring? Definitely.

But funny? Well, read the Declaration of Independence and you'll find nary a belly laugh.

Still, the Steve Martin-penned play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" attempts to bring those seemingly disparate concepts, the comedic and the cosmic, together in a breezy comedy staged by the California State University, Stanislaus, drama department.

The promised combination of big ideas and big laughs by a big-name writer brought sold-out crowds into the university's intimate Studio Theatre.

The fictional conceit is this: Before they were famous, the physicist Albert Einstein and painter Pablo Picasso met one day in 1904 in a small Parisian bar, Cabaret au Lapin Agile -- "the nimble rabbit."

There, before changing the world with their work, the young men discuss the nature of genius and inspiration, among other things, with the owner and patrons at the watering hole.

The zany energy that is the author's on-screen signature is apparent almost immediately.

As Einstein (Eric Braojos) comes into the bar, owner Freddy (Ricky Gonzalez) admonishes him for entering too soon. Gonzalez snatches a program from an audience member and chastises him for entering third not fourth as the "In Order of Appearance" cast list dictates. Bye bye, fourth wall.

While named after Picasso, the piece is very much an ensemble. Bellying up to the bar alongside the cocky painter (Matthew Valladares) and awkward scientist are bartender Germaine (Elizabeth Holzman) and barfly Gaston (Gary Christianson).

Others come and go, including art dealer Sagot (Craig Tyhurst), Picasso conquest Suzanne (Sophie Laidler) and one very special visitor (Chris Zumaran).

The Einstein we see is a bit of a pasty-faced weirdo. Upon arriving, he announces that he is waiting for a woman he is supposed to meet at Bar Rouge. So why wait at the wrong bar?

"As a theorist, I suppose there's just as much chance of meeting her here as there," he says.

The play mixes grand intensions with guaranteed laughs. Bathroom humor (Gaston's leaky plumbing) and sex jokes (Suzanne's décolletage rearrangement) are thrown in liberally for good measure.

Once Picasso (who doesn't enter until halfway through the production) arrives, the flexing of male egos is played out like a scene from "High Noon." Both Picasso and Einstein "quick draw" their work on note pads.

It is easy chuckles like these that make "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" more frothy than truly thought-provoking. The big ideas (particularly Martin's theory that geniuses -- whether painters or scientists -- share a similar, exclusive aesthetic) are touched upon but not belabored.

This Picasso is an arrogant Lothario, filled with contempt for the women he claims inspire him. As Germaine, another of his conquests, tells him, "You will never have to earn a woman, and you will never appreciate a woman."

Valladares' Picasso comes off as a less spastic, more suave Chris Kattan. Meanwhile, Holzman grounds the cast as the bar and play's voice of reason.

Director Jere O'Donnell keeps the pace brisk. The staging is simple, but surprisingly evocative of a Parisian pub.

While the big ideas aren't as earth-shattering as, say, the Declaration of Independence or Einstein's "Special Theory of Relativity" or Picasso's "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon," the production is hands-down funnier than all three of those works combined.

Bee entertainment writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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