Our Really Stupid Century

Well, of course Steve Martin wrote a funny play. What'd you expect? The guy was a brilliant comedian and is a damn fine writer. So it's no surprise that Picasso at the Lapin Agile, his 1993 play receiving its Orange County premiere at the Laguna Playhouse, is a very funny play.

But who would have thought Martin would also write such an eloquent, powerful elegy for the 20th century? The moment comes near the end of his play, which is set in 1904 at a Paris bistro. The hangout of intellectuals and artists, the Lapin Agile is also frequented by two young men who are on the cusps of brilliant work that will indelibly etch their names into the history books: Pablo Picasso (whose Les Demoiselles d'Avignon may be the first modern painting) and Albert Einstein (most famous for his special theory of relativity). The two gather with the rest of the cast on the lip of the stage to toast a not-so-fond farewell to the 19th century and to welcome with great enthusiasm the arrival of the 20th.

"Say goodbye to the age of indifference," one character says. And then all eyes turn to a mysterious visitor who claims to be from the future. As someone who has watched most of the 20th century unfold, he's the perfect person to cap the toast. He takes a beat and says, "And say hello . . . to the age . . . of regret."

The bubble is momentarily deflated. More interesting, a physical jolt courses through the audience at the remark. After 90 minutes of wild, caterwauling comedy that never takes itself too seriously, the audience is suddenly bitch-slapped into a profound, if momentary, bit of contemplation.

Five years ago, when the play received its star-studded Los Angeles premiere, the ending didn't have that power. But then we were saying goodbye to a century that still had five years left—five years in which to redeem the horror of the other 95. Now, with the century's weeks away, there is genuine resonance in the ending. Goddamn if this century really isn't ending—the best efforts of politicians and governments notwithstanding. And goddamn if it hasn't been a century that's produced some of the greatest minds and discoveries in our collective history, as well as our greatest atrocities and abominations. And goddamn if that doesn't deserve a salute—and a lusty "Good fucking riddance."

That's about as Big as Martin's play gets. There are plenty of big ideas and big conversations and big characters—who could be bigger than Picasso or Einstein? But the ideas and jokes fly so frenetically at the audience that they tend to blur into one another. The result is a play that feels like a frequently brilliant but often inane comic riff by a genius comedian who never met an idea, or a digression, he didn't try to twist into something funny.

Usually Martin succeeds. I'm still laughing three days after I saw the damn thing. But I don't think I'm laughing at a very good play. The characters rarely live in more than one dimension; neither does the story—until that last moment. And it's hard to shake the suspicion that while what Martin says sounds very smart and is very funny, he doesn't really have a whole lot to say.

If this play is about anything, it's that a great artist and a great scientist share a great deal in common. Both are intensely passionate about their work, and both seem, at times, to be tools, as opposed to channelers, of the creative force. But rather than really exploring the towering minds at his play's center, Martin seems content to contrive a chance meeting between them and, like any great sitcom, surround them with a cast of eccentric, wisecracking supporting characters.

Director Andrew Barnicle's greatest achievement might be finding such a fine supporting cast. The actors who portray Einstein (David Ellenstein) and Picasso (J.D. Roberto) are both very talented and believable, but this play shines in the strength of its ensemble. There's nary a misstep, with Jill Remez's complex, sexually charged Germaine and Garnett Smith's flawless Sagot nearly stealing the show.

But, again, while the ensemble makes this an eminently enjoyable ride, not even that is enough to make us feel as if we've really gone somewhere. The playwright has missed a golden opportunity to explore his characters in a way that would give his comedy more substance. In short, he's missed out on writing a great play.

Take Picasso. The first artist to acquire a worldwide audience, he had as much to do with developing the cult of the artist as anyone. In a century when celebrity and fame, self-marketing and genuine talent became so blurred, it would have been an interesting subject to explore, especially from the slightly bent perspective of a writer intimately familiar with all four subjects.

As far as Einstein, it's a wonder bordering on the relativity of time that Martin juxtaposed this radiant mind brimming with joy and optimism with the ways his theories were put into practice and their effect on the world at large. The archconservative Paul Johnson has written in Modern Times that one of the interesting facts about Einstein's theory of relativity was that the public didn't quite get it. The unintended result was that many believed Einstein had proved scientifically that there are no absolutes of any kind; relativity "formed a knife, inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture."

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