Picasso at the Lapin Agile

ArtsCenter Stage
Through April 3

Throughout Picasso at the Lapin Agile‘s opening night at the The ArtsCenter in Carrboro, I had the unshakable feeling that we’d seen this show before.

A check of the archives confirmed it: The year was 1998; Mark Filiaci directed a brooding Geoffrey Zeger as Picasso, while Seth Blum played his one-night drinking buddy, Albert Einstein, in a show also featuring David Ring and Tom Marriott. The venue for the production? The ArtsCenter.

Apparently we’ve come full circle. Unfortunately, I’m not at all certain that’s a good thing.

While The ArtsCenter has hosted any number of shows by regional and touring groups, its own stagings have proven more problematic over the intervening years. After the ArtsCenter Community Theater was shuttered in the wake of repeated professional and artistic gaffes in 2001, no resident company took its place until Hidden Voices began producing there under Lynden Harris’ artistic direction in 2005.

Since then, the venue has presented a series of special projects: popular annual 10-minute play festivals and self-styled play slams; staged readings of work by local playwrights; and children’s productions (by their own conservatory) of A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Drood (in cooperation with Playmakers Rep).

Against that backdrop, then-artistic director Emily Ranii’s imaginative mounting last May of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice signaled a welcome return to full-length, fully staged and ambitious adult theater produced at The ArtsCenter.

Another year has now passed, and a new artistic director now helms ArtsCenter Stage. And we’re watching Steve Martin’s Picasso, again, in a production whose difficulties also echo The ArtsCenter’s past.

Playwright (and comedian) Martin’s text remains something of a poor man’s take on Tom Stoppard’s Travesties: a metaphysical shaggy-dog story about a night Picasso and Einstein might have passed drinking in a Paris dive at the turn of the last century. Amid abundant-enough jokes, both men, their boozy compatriots and the audience have time to speculatebriefly (if in a somewhat self-congratulatory manner)on the loneliness of genius.

But on opening night, whatever this production ever achieved in the way of momentum was repeatedly zeroed out in its early scenes by the bizarre extended pauses of onetime ArtsCenter executive director Jon Wilner in the role of Gaston. Was this actor exploring new vistas of Shatnerian subtexteither with or without the permission of present artistic director Jeri Lynn Schulke? Or was Wilner simply going up on nearly every line? Beyond a point, it didn’t matter: His performance crippled the first part of this production, flattening a good part of its comic timing. Did no one see this coming?

While Adam Sampieri’s intensity as Picasso was appreciated, Lucius Robinson was less successful as Einstein (although Martin’s version of Einstein is rather thin). What’s worrisome is that Robinson’s remarkable gift for witty urbanity seems to have become his crutch. We’d now like to see a regional director get something completely different from him.

Sarah Donnell found a constellation of interesting notes as the women who prove to be Picasso’s foils, and Jeff Aguiar gave an appropriately caustic performance as critic/ dealer Sagot. Jenny Wales’ waitress Germaine makes with the gibes before a believable second-half changeup, while Dan Oliver remains too flat throughout as Freddy. Nick Karner is presumably directed over a cliff as the manic Schmendiman, while late cast addition Jay O’Berski was already settling into the polite, soft-spoken role of a brief visitor it would be a spoiler to identify .

Whatever the reason, the production had difficulty gelling on opening night, in a show that asks how much more of The ArtsCenter’s past must be relived before the caliber of work we see on other regional stages is again reflected here.

Corrections (March 31, 2011): Two factual errors have been corrected in this story. The ArtsCenter did not stage the first regional production of a play by Sarah Ruhl. And due to incomplete information from the production, we misstated that Jay O’Berski took over Aaron Dunlap’s role when he left the show.