My friend Jeanine and I had looked very forward to the opening night of Picasso at the Lapin Agile for a while, but it took place on the evening of February 24, which was the night of the alerts to stay in the house because of the “life-threatening” storm! We were smart enough to heed those warnings, but were so disappointed to miss the play.

So we were happy that we finally got to see it this past weekend, when it was safe to go out. And we were rewarded with an entertaining presentation.

(L-R) J Teddy Garces, Jack Merrill, Isaac J. Cruz, Amy Motta, and Fred Deni. Photo by Khue Cai, as is the one at the top of this review.

(L-R) J Teddy Garces, Jack Merrill, Isaac J. Cruz, Amy Motta, and Fred Deni. Photo by Khue Cai, as is the one at the top of this review.

Jeanine and I had separately seen other productions of Picasso at the Lapin Agile many years ago, and this one was definitely better for both of us.

Actually, the one I saw was at this very same venue, the Ruskin Theatre at the Santa Monica Airport! So I was curious to return there, and see if my brain had developed in the absurdist arena since then, because I hadn’t understood anything about the play when I first saw it. And I was surprised to discover that it had a bit. Or, more likely, this is just a much more engaging production. (But I still can’t tell you what it’s about, other than that Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein meet briefly as young men in Paris, so you’re on your own in that category.)

This is actually a very smart time for the Ruskin to re-present this Steve Martin-penned play because his fame is at an all-time high due to his hit television show, Only Murders in the Building. So even audiences who know him from only that will be curious to see a work by his younger self. (He wrote Picasso at the Lapin Agile exactly thirty years ago.)

Isaac J. Cruz, as Picasso, and Ryan Stiffelman, as Einstein.  Photo by Khue Cai.

Isaac J. Cruz, as Picasso, and Ryan Stiffelman, as Einstein. Photo by Khue Cai.

But for me, this is actually Steve Martin at his least funny. However, there are several really good laughs in it, and the almost sold-out audience I saw it with appeared to be really enjoying themselves, as were Jeanine and I. (Just be aware that the character Picasso doesn’t come in until about halfway through, so the title is a tad misleading.)

Now to the specifics. At just under an hour and a half, the play never gets boring. All the actors have comedic chops, and the action constantly moves. The blocking, (i.e. the characters’ locations, and where and how they move, for you non-theatre peeps,) is excellent, ensuring that every audience member can see something fun along the way. (By the way—this is the very first time I’ve lauded blocking in a review, so you know it’s good!)

The entrances of the first two characters–J. Teddy Grace’s Freddy (the bartender) moving and grooving over to the bar, and then Fred Deni’s Gaston bursting into the bar boisterously singing Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay—set an upbeat tone right off the bat.

Speaking of Fred, who is not only an actor, but also a restaurateur extraordinaire, I have to be honest and tell you that I’ve very proudly known Fred for a few decades now, because his duo of famous Santa Monica restaurants–the always-popular Back on the Beach and the late Back on Broadway–have been two of my perennially favorite restaurants. As a matter of fact, the very first time I was on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson asked me where he should go to dinner that night! Without hesitation I answered, “ Back on Broadway!” And he even let me elaborate on the menu, etc. We were all in shock that he did that; I had no idea that question was coming, and I was thrilled to have one of Fred’s eateries on the tip of my tongue. I’ve felt that he and I have been connected ever since.

But I promise you that our association did not influence me in the least for this review. As a matter of fact, it is extremely hard to watch a friend perform. It’s usually downright nerve-wracking. So it was a great delight to me that I saw Fred as only his character, Gaston, from the moment he came bounding onto the stage. His humor put me at ease right away and kept me there. And his fun performance made me proud of him anew.

(L-R) Fred Deni, J. Teddy Garces, and Ryan Stiffelman. Photo by Khue Cai.

(L-R) Fred Deni, J. Teddy Garces, and Ryan Stiffelman. Photo by Khue Cai.

Actually, all the actors in Picasso at the Lapin Agile are good. Each one defines his or her character perfectly, and keeps us entertained.

And there are a couple of surprises in the last ten minutes or so; they turned-out to be my favorite parts. To not ruin it for you, all I can say is that one is a very funny characterization and the other a beautiful bit of set design.

Jeanine told me that she deemed the Michael Mullen’s costumes to be “exquisite.” She elaborated, “The dresses are beautiful, and I also loved the hats, both on the ladies and on the character of the art dealer. And Einstein’s plaid suit was interesting.” She’s a veteran of many plays around town, so I trust her opinion on this.

My favorite visual is scenes in the “windows” by the booths in the bar. I adored them! They’re painted in! With frilly real curtains on rods over the areas. They made my mouth water. They reminded me of a little mural of schoolchildren painted over our fake fireplace in my basement growing up!!! I loved going down to marvel at it even up until I sold the house just a few years ago! I thank Scenic Designer Ryan Wilson for treating my eyes to this new beauty.

The wonderful windows! Photo by Karen Salkin.

The wonderful windows! Photo by Karen Salkin.

As with all shows, though, there are a few negatives. First of all, there are way too many different accents among the cast! Isaac J. Cruz, as Picasso, does an effective Spanish one, and Ryan Stiffelman’s Einstein has an equally successful one which definitely passes for his native German. And Jackson Glenn as an American guest near the very end does his regional drawl very well; he cracked me up with just about every sentence. But the rest of the cast just went with their own American accents, after what seemed like their first few sentences in attempts at French ones. It’s just waaay too distracting.

The only one really doing a French accent, (and a good one,) is Ashley Barrett, who portrays three different characters. But she practically whispered her lines, so all I could make-out was her good accent, not the words! That’s a shame because I have a feeling she has some of the best lines. But Ashley’s lack of projection, along with the confusing accents, are on the director, Amelia Mulkey. She should have fixed all that in rehearsals. (But she still gets props from me for all that great blocking and fun entrances!)

(L-R) Isaac J. Cruz, Fred Deni, Amy Motta, and Ashley Barrett. Photo by Khue Cai.

(L-R) Isaac J. Cruz, Fred Deni, Amy Motta, and Ashley Barrett. Photo by Khue Cai.

And as I said in my review of Sunday in the Park with George last week, I’m not a fan of featuring real-life people in fake situations in shows or films. I wish that playwrights would just create fictitious characters in the same fields, for goodness sake. (But Picasso at the Lapin Agile came from the crazy mind of Steve Martin, so nuttiness like this is basically de rigueur for him.)

As to the venue, the Ruskin is a cute, intimate theatre. But its unique location makes it possible to hear the planes overhead, (which I sort-of got a kick out of, even if it momentarily took me out of the tale I was watching.) And the afternoon that I saw the play, there were a few technical noise glitches inside, which I thought at first were part of the proceedings. On top of those tiny sound issues, the air-conditioning started blowing in from the left side, so be prepared for it, just in case that always happens there.

Now I’ll end on some very happy news for those of you whom my review just convinced to see this run of Picasso at the Lapin Agile—all the parking at the Ruskin is free!!! That’s even more of a miracle, especially in LA, than a meeting between twenty-somethings Einstein and Picasso!

Picasso at the Lapin Agile running through April 2, 2023
Ruskin Group Theatre 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica


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