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STAGE REVIEW

An entertaining bar crowd

ANDREW BRILLIANT/brilliant picturesNeil A. Casey as Einstein, Marianna Bassham as Germaine, and Scott Sweatt as Picasso. ANDREW BRILLIANT/brilliant picturesNeil A. Casey as Einstein, Marianna Bassham as Germaine, and Scott Sweatt as Picasso. (Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
By Terry Byrne
Globe Correspondent / April 25, 2009
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WATERTOWN - Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" is a slight comedy loaded with some hearty laughs. The film star and comedian pulls together his fascination with philosophy, arguments over the impact of science versus art, and his exquisite comic timing for this one-act adventure in a Paris bar. Director Daniel Gidron smartly underplays Martin's broadest bits so that the New Repertory Theatre's current production is driven by a terrific ensemble stronger than the script itself.

The action takes place on one evening in 1904 in the bar that gives the play its title. Drinking and talking is the oddest assortment of characters seen in a long time. There's Albert Einstein, during the period when he worked in a patent office, a year before he published "The Special Theory of Relativity"; Pablo Picasso at the end of his "blue" period; Sagot, an art dealer; Gaston, a Frenchman who describes himself as "a newly old man"; the barkeep Freddy and the waitress Germaine, who encourage the nascent writers and artists who frequent the bar; and Suzanne, a woman who is hoping to meet Picasso to renew their relationship.

Over the next 75 minutes, this motley crew discusses the possibilities for the new century and their place in it, as well as the power of the intellect to extend the boundaries of thought beyond anything that came before. One of the funniest moments comes when Einstein and Picasso perform a battle of the pencils, in which each one creates his own masterpiece. Laughs are plentiful, too, when members of the group offer predictions for the future, such as "a carton of cigarettes will be the most thoughtful get-well gift" and "the city of Hiroshima will be completely modernized." Because this is Steve Martin, though, there is also a liberal sprinkling of potty humor and jokes about sex, just in case our minds wander.

Creating these iconic characters can be tricky. Einstein is played with mad brilliance by Neil A. Casey, while Scott Sweatt is an appropriately overheated Picasso, all jangly nerves and emotional intensity.

As a contrast to the two great minds, Martin introduces Charles Dabernow Schmendiman, a man of no great intellect who believes he has created an "inflexible, brittle building material" that will change the world. Dennis Trainor gives this blowhard some dramatic flair without hamming it up too much. Other standouts in the cast include Marianna Bassham as Germaine, Owen Doyle as the Lapin Agile's owner, and Paul D. Farwell, who nearly steals the show as Gaston.

As clever as Martin is, however, he does not know where to take his comedy. The arrival of a "visitor" from the future is a somewhat desperate attempt to pull everything together that doesn't quite work. Fortunately, the audience has been having so much fun we're willing to go along for the ride.

PICASSO AT THE LAPIN AGILE

Play by Steve Martin.

Directed by: Daniel Gidron. Scenic design, Cristina Todesco. Costume design, Frances Nelson McSherry. Lighting design, John R. Malinowski. Sound design, Dewey Delay.

Presented by the New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, through May 10. Tickets: $35-$55. 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org.