By GREG BURLIUK, THE WHIG STANDARD
January 22, 2011

It's not a well known fact, but comic actor Steve Martin started out academic life as a philosophy major. Perhaps it's not surprising then that his play, Picasso At the Lapin Agile, has somewhat of a philosophic bent. It asks the question, what would have happened if Picasso and Einstein had met at the start of their careers, and as it turns out, at the beginning of the 20th century.

Martin doesn't get too intellectual about it because this play is a comedy, and one with lots of laughs, some unexpected comic twists and clever, witty dialogue. It's the latest production from The King's Town Players, a new company started by several veteran actors, which has had a couple of productions since starting in the fall, none of whom were staged for more than five days.

Picasso At the Lapin Agile is having a two-week run at a unique but perfect location, upstairs at the Kingston Yacht Club, which has been re-done to become a cosy French cabaret circa 1904. The audience is invited to purchase a beverage downstairs and bring it upstairs to sit at tables and in effect become nonspeaking denizens of the French pub, as the actors occasionally address the audience directly.

Picasso and Einstein may be the two central characters in the play but they aren't necessarily the most interesting. There's Gaston, the grumpy barfly with the bladder problem, Freddy the bartender, a man who's both practical and philosophical, and Germaine, his girlfriend a free-spirit who knows Freddy's limitations but appreciates his occasional shining moments.

There's also Suzanne, a lover of Picasso's, Schmendiman's a self-absorbed inventor, Sagot the cheerful but mercenary art dealer, and a surprising time traveller from the future who will be easily recognizable since he's just as famous as Picasso and Einstein.

Picasso doesn't appear till the end of the first act and he and Einstein don't have much to say to each other, except that in the end both agree about the creative urge to make something beautiful. So there's not a lot of dramatic punch to the play or much form either. Martin loves to step outside the walls of the play, so when Picasso's lover leaves and asks him when she'll see him, he replies, "At the end of this play." And with a lot of funny bits, there's the occasional dry moment when Martin goes too far trying to be intellectual.

The cast assembled by director David Slack is a mixture of the very experienced and those still learning the ropes. Leading the way comically is Steven Spencer as the grumpy Gaston in a role that seems to have been written by him. The funniest moment of the night comes when Gaston describes trying to decide what colour to paint his shutters. It may sound pedestrian, but in Spencer's hands, it's comic genius.

I also liked Robert Maizen's take on Einstein as somewhat dapper, a wannabe ladies man and someone who thinks that what he's doing is as creative as a painting. And as Germaine, Jennifer Atkinson is by turns shrewd, dismissive and just the tiniest bit of a romantic.

In smaller roles, Kevin Fox makes the most of his brief moments as Schmenderman [sic], imbuing him with lots of fussy energy, Terry Wade plays Sagot with lots of comic bluster but needs to get his lines down better, and as the mysterious visitor, Steve VanVolkingburgh is smart enough to play the role with a twinkle in his eye, but needs to get more comfortable moving around and shouldn't be afraid to go over the top a little more.

As Freddy the bartender, Eugene Girard is on stage more than anyone, but could play down his role just a bit and not react to everything. Most disappointing of all is Michael McGuire as Picasso, as McGuire rushes his lines and isn't particularly convincing as a playboy artist.

Still, this is a production that will keep you happily engaged and its location is so perfect that you will spend a happy evening there.

Rating: * * * 1/2 stars out of five

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