Meeting of the minds

It's been little remarked-upon in the big national magazines that regularly profile him as a movie star, but as Steve Martin's movie presence has turned limper and limper, his screenplays (especially L.A. Story) and essays for The New Yorker have grown positively tumescent.

These works are not quite like the arrow-through-the-skull days of his hilarious early '80s book Cruel Shoes, whose title short story finds a finicky shopper insisting on a pair of shoes that will leave her feet bloody and disfigured. Nor are they the stuff of the fearless satirist who created a TV sketch called "The Elephant Guy," a parody of David Lynch's film in which our deformed hero sports giant floppy ears and a trunk and hits on the English stage actress who comes to see him out of pity.

What Steve Martin the writer has become is a unique fusion of the two. The absurdist and satirical bents joined together have created an engrossing contradiction -- a gentle take on the cruelty of time, life, and history. His most famous and widely produced play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, gets its professional North Texas premiere courtesy of 11th Street Theatre Project. Although the script occasionally emits the aroma of an overlong Saturday Night Live skit, it has nonetheless both a sense and a sensibility -- the sense that Martin has sharply realized his fictional meeting between two great minds in turn-of-the-century France, and the sensibility to capture the cosmic import of that meeting. Under the direction of 11th Street's Lisa Cotie, two strong leads and a game supporting cast keep Martin's lark-filled script humming along merrily.

With Picasso at the Lapin Agile, the playwright has envisioned an accidental brush between Albert Einstein (Jeff Bush) and Pablo Picasso (Shane Beeson) in a Parisian dive late one night shortly after the 19th century has become the 20th. Both stand at the brink of their fame -- Picasso is a still-handsome womanizer stuck in his blue period, Einstein a physicist toiling in a patent office while at night he scribbles his theories about the universe. Nobody at the barroom called the Lapin Agile -- including proprietor Freddy (Kevin Grammer), waitress Germaine (Jeanette Chivis), and beret-sporting regular Gaston (Frances Fusilier) -- takes the dorky, math-spouting Einstein seriously. But Picasso is something far sexier: a painter, and a self-promoting one at that. Einstein has orbited around the proceedings through most of the first half, but when Picasso barges in and two gigantic brains realize they're about to change history, the tug of war begins. Must cubism and the theory of relativity be positioned in a battle for dominance, or are they actually two rather complementary lenses through which reality can be scrambled, then reassembled and better understood? At its best, the playwright's clever jousting is not at all as pretentious as that question makes it sound.

The one consistently annoying aspect of Picasso at the Lapin Agile is Martin's insistence on reminding us that we're watching a play -- whether it's Kevin Grammer scolding one character for making his entrance out of the order of appearance in the program or the final lines spoken by a visitor from a different time. It's less of a comic device than a curio, a distraction, a distraught stab at laughter that draws attention away from the far more interesting dialogue that transpires onstage. I'm not sure whether director Lisa Cotie should have scrapped this stuff or found a way to make it less obtrusive, but you do feel like you're being yanked around because of it.

Where you can place your trust is in the performers in this show. Jeff Bush has always struck me as one of this city's blandest actors -- not terrible, but anemic and lethargic in a series of character roles from which he seems to drain everything but the characters' various accents and hair colors. But he hits all the right cues as Albert Einstein in the most luminous performance I've ever seen him give. Here, he's both shy and insistent, and his face genuinely lights up with each overintellectual, Teutonic epiphany his character reaches. You really get a comic sense of Einstein getting his cerebral bearings here. In physical type, Shane Beeson reminds us more of a high school freshman than one of the 20th century's pivotal painters. But the point of Martin's play is to capture the adolescence of genius, and boyish Beeson struts very convincingly, throwing a hilariously feverish (but utterly consistent) Spanish accent like a noose around the neck of every female in the room.

Among the supporting players, Frances Fusilier as an aging philosopher with a bladder the size of a dime and Megan Pitsios playing three different characters -- including, most memorably, a forgotten sexual accomplice of Picasso's who bitterly clutches a drawing he did of her -- rise up to the challenge of the two leads. Jeanette Chivis as the Lapin Agile's barmaid and Kevin Grammer as its operator seemed a bit out of place in the preview night. You couldn't shake the sense that they were somehow playing catch-up, or that they hadn't been guided to capture -- or at least contribute to -- the same loose-limbed intensity that Bush and Beeson displayed.

You can't help but roll your eyes when Elvis Presley (Tom Eppler) makes a time-traveling appearance at the close of Picasso at the Lapin Agile, but it does complete the triptych -- "all things come in threes" -- that Martin has set up for himself. (I'm just not entirely comfortable with the notion of Presley as a musical genius.) You wish that Martin could shake a little of his comic desperation, his nervous-clown urge to keep the laughs coming whether they're organic to the piece or not, but this script and 11th Street's production are engaging enough to let us ignore the excesses. The best compliment I can pay this show is to say that one of the theater artist indulgences I've consistently ragged on in this space -- no intermission, which usually means the assumption that your production is so riveting that audiences dare not be given a break to stretch their legs -- worked here. Eleventh Street skipped the intermission for Picasso at the Lapin Agile, and I didn't notice it through the 90-minute run. For a critic with a bladder the size of a dime to overlook that decision is telling.

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Jimmy Fowler