Comedy at the speed of light: Jobsite actors shine in Steve Martin's Picasso

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click to enlarge RACONTEURS: Chris Holcom (seated) as Picasso and Jason Vaughan Evans (standing) as Einstein. - Jobsite Theater
Jobsite Theater
RACONTEURS: Chris Holcom (seated) as Picasso and Jason Vaughan Evans (standing) as Einstein.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a gently lighthearted celebration of the 20th century, when, according to a mysterious Visitor, "the accomplishments of artists and scientists outshone the accomplishments of politicians and governments." In the fine, entertaining production now being offered by Jobsite Theater, author Steve Martin's charming comedy is skillfully presented, and the (fanciful) meeting of Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein is rendered like a beguiling joke told over brandy by a kindly raconteur.

There's not much of a subtext here — what you see is pretty much what you get — but there are several excursions on the nature of fame, and some intelligent allusions to cubism and relativity. More impressive than the script, though, is the work of the Jobsite company: actors like Chris Holcom, Jason Evans and Steve Garland make Picasso run as smoothly as a train in one of those physics problems designed to demonstrate the invariable speed of light. These performers are professionals, and their talent shines through every word of the play.

There's virtually no plot to Picasso; but there are conversations on art and science, love and sex. The year is 1904, and Einstein is on the brink of publishing his Theory of Special Relativity, while Picasso's just a few years from painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. The Lapin Agile is a bar frequented by writers and painters, but when Einstein walks in, it's in order to be with a woman who agreed to meet him elsewhere, at the Bar Rouge. Is he confused? Not at all: As he explains, "There is just as much a chance of her wandering in here accidentally as there is of her wandering into the Bar Rouge on purpose."

Moments later, a young woman named Suzanne saunters in, searching for Picasso; he's seduced her twice and she's looking for a third go. As we wait with her for the artist, we get to know the bar's other habitués: Freddy, its unflappable owner; Germaine, the coquettish waitress (and Freddy's lover); Gaston, an aging Don Juan; and, eventually, Sagot, Picasso's art dealer who also happens to work for Matisse. Finally, Picasso arrives with talk of sex and creativity and how the latter depends, at least for him, on the former.

In a short time, he's drawn into a duel with Einstein about which man is the more important, and then Schmendiman, the inventor of Schmendimite ("an inflexible and very brittle building material") charges in, certain that his fame will outshine all the rest. There's much more clever talk about art and women, genius and the coming century, and finally a surprise visitor appears to move the comedy toward its ending. We leave enchanted, if not much moved.

The Jobsite troupe is almost entirely superb. Chris Holcom doesn't look a bit like Picasso, but he plays the part with such brio that it doesn't matter. Jason Evans, who frequently has minor roles in Jobsite productions, is nothing short of wonderful in the starring part of Einstein, and Steve Garland is very funny as the aging womanizer Gaston (but does Garland ever play a part in which he doesn't punctuate his lines with laughter?). Michael C. McGreevy is slick and powerful as art dealer Sagot, and Matt Lunsford as bar-owner Freddy is disarmingly amiable.

One of the great pleasures of the show is J. Duggan's work as the clueless Schmendiman: Looking like a cross between a Renoir boatman and a Disney dwarf, he tries to dominate his scenes like a superstar among mere asteroids. As for newcomer Jennifer Rae, she's a real find — sexy, sultry and always on top of her role's comedy. I wasn't quite convinced by Dominic Russo's mysterious Visitor, though, and Christen Pettit doesn't register as the femme fatale that Germaine should be.

Brian Smallheer's set is the best he's ever designed — featuring a realistic bar, a wall of bottles and a delightfully kitschy painting of sheep in a meadow. Kari Goetz's direction, like her costuming, is tiptop from the first moment, though I'm beginning to think that this Jobsite troupe is so talented, they would make any director look good.

There's a French proverb: "Little by little, the bird makes its nest." Well, little by little, Jobsite Theater has been turning into the most consistent, most dependable company in the Bay area. Picasso may not be a particularly important play, but the Jobsite production is a winner. I can hardly wait to see what this formidable troupe will do next.

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