The first time I saw Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, I went in to the theatre excited and came out disappointed. But I never quite understood why. Was it because I was in the wrong mood? Did I have expectations that were too high? Did I subconsciously want a Steve Martin comedy routine instead of play? I couldn’t pin it down.
I just had a chance to see the show again, and I think I understand my reaction a bit more. For the record, I think Steve Martin is a great comedian, an excellent musician, and also a very good writer. (I was particularly impressed by Shopgirl, his novella about a young girl selling expensive items at Neiman Marcus.) However, I’m still not fond of Picasso.
The play, which is loosely about a fictional meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein at the famous Parisian cabaret, gets many of it’s laughs by telling us what we already know. He shows us two people who are about to change the world, but we already understand that. The characters, an obsessed, womanizing painter and a brilliant physicist who sees the universe in a different light, are already iconic, already mythic. Showing them to us, with a nudge and wink, “These guys are going to be great,” is a cheap laugh. I want a play to tell me something I don’t know, not something I already do.
Granted, not all plays need to be Hamlet or Waiting for Godot, but there’s something about really good comedy that does show us the world in a new light. Things are often funny because they are a truth that goes unacknowledged, or seen in a new light. Picasso also has a bit of a “stand up” feel to it in that when one particular tangent of one-liners is exhausted, Martin simply shifts to an unrelated tangent or series of jokes; there is not always a dramatic through line connecting the disparate pieces.
Since it took me several years to achieve this insight, I fear I’m not much of a critic. Too often, I walk away from a show with a feeling, but not the means to express why I felt a certain way. This time, after a second viewing and several years in between, I think I did.