Monday, June 14, 2010

Picasso at the Lapin Angile and other Plays by Steve Martin

Most people who are reading who know me should find it unsurprising that I really like Steve Martin, particularly his early career, when the man seemed to be liable to do just about anything for a laugh.

As he's aged, his humor has changed with it, and I don't always find Martin's new style to be to my liking. Sadly, when he does try to capture some of the old magic (see Pink Panther), you can tell that it's forced. The light just isn't on, and the jokes suffer for it.

That's why I was pleasantly surprised to enjoy every single one of the four plays contained in Picasso at the Lapin Agile, showing that when the Hollywood mindset is taken out of the equation, Martin can put together a work that is both deep in thought and rich in jokes that are obvious, subtle, and sarcastic--just the very things that made him so good for all those years.

I'd only known of the title work when I picked this up. I remember there being a little bit of buzz that Martin had written a play, but after that, nothing. The story revolves around the idea of Albert Einstein meeting Pablo Picasso shortly before both have breakthroughs in their career. They're joined by a few other people, who are used to contrast the two titans as well as a rather familiar stranger who has a few words about fame.

Obviously, part of the fun is watching Martin manipulate the brilliant but often a bit flighty Einstein and the opportunistic Picasso. They say things that match their characters as we know them best, but also withhold some of their talent, because they haven't reached it yet. There are quite a few moments where Martin's wit shines through, such as when another character can't get that Eisnstein thinks in universal terms. In another part of the play, Martin's ability to cut to the quick and expose the darkness of humanity showcases itself, as a conquest of Picasso's doesn't act as she should, and goes on to talk about how she's familiar with "men like him," i.e. those who like a constant woman so they have a backup plan when their affairs fall apart.

It's the blending of the comedy with the insight that makes this play work so well. While Martin is no Shakespeare, he does catch on that the best plays are funny on their surface, but hide layers of depth when you start to think about them. He uses humor and sarcasm and irony to show that in the end, science and art must both have their place at the table--and watch carefully that commercialism doesn't eat them alive in this unknown future of the 20th Century that is before them.

The other three plays are shorter, and tend to be more of exercises in thought. The Zig Zag Woman is an exercise in philosophy with a tinge of bitterness, and discusses things that are absolutely absurd. It's a chance for Martin to make commentary on convention and the idea of relationship. Unfortunately, I don't think it works quite as well it should, because the conceit feels, well, out of shape. I wonder if it would be better seen in person.

Patter for the Floating Lady offers an insight into the hurts that can happen when two people are in a relationship and one wants to be the controlling figure all of the time. Deftly using the metaphor of a magician and his assistant, Martin shows the danger of this idea, and what the controlling person loses by trying to take too much, too fast. His realization is as crashing as the end of his act, but in the end, we see by his final words that he's learned nothing. Though this is but a short scene, it carries a powerful weight. This is not funny in any way, but shows off Martin's ability to capture a feeling and make it work on the printed page (or in person).

WASP is a bit longer, and is the most straightforward of the four works. It's a clear condemnation of the fallacy of the ideal family. From the opening lines that starts with a prayer denying scientific truth to the end, where the cold and authoritarian father states that since he never got love, why should he give it to others (even if he can, which is doubtful), this is biting satire that will make you bleed if you touch its edge.

I only know a bit about Martin's life growing up, but I can't help but think this work has some personal moments in it. You don't write such out of touch, out of sync characters without knowing what that's like. Similarly, you can't fully appreciate it if your life didn't have its own moments, maybe not exactly like these, but with similar themes. Those who feel their lives were perfect (or who live in denial of what they had to deal with) are going to miss the boat.

Not everything is perfect. This satire is a bit heavy-handed at times, such as when the father objects to getting rid of his lawn jockeys or when he can't even remember his daughter's name. However, I don't think a few moments of hitting us on the head with a hammer dilute the power of seeing how the little ways in which we go about our lives can add up to serious problems.

I'd love to see any of these plays in person, but in all of them, words are of primary importance. I was able to realize the quality and meaning of the play easily, without being able to watch it in person. Reading plays can be a tricky thing, but in this case, I think they worked well, a tribute to Martin's careful crafting and a sign that while his other writing was for the big screen, he's no novice to plotting, character, and wordplay.

Picasso at the Lapin Angile is one of the better plays I've read, and definitely one of the best modern plays to cross my book list, though I admit the latter category is a bit limited. The others are all also very good, and make for a solid collection. If you are a fan of drama or Steve Martin, reading (and maybe, if you're lucky, seeing) these plays is highly recommended.

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