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Wild and Crazy Guise

Steve Martin, that well-known comedian of movies and late night TV, is also a playwright, as witness the current production of his one-act comedy, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" which Arlington's Keegan Theatre Company is performing at the Gunston Arts Center through August 19.

In it, a young and as-yet unknown artist Pablo Picasso, played as a brooding young man by Keegan's Artistic Director Mark Rhea, and an equally young and unknown physicist Albert Einstein, played with bright aplomb by Keegan's co-founder Eric Lucas, meet in a small bar in Paris.

There's no proof that the two ever really met, but Martin has great fun imagining what would have happened had these two icons of the twentieth century happened to stop in for a drink on the same night in 1904.

Martin has written many a television sketch, teleplay and screenplay. He wrote the screenplays of his bigger movies including "The Pink Panther," "Roxanne" and "Three Amigos." This was his first play meant for the stage, and it was an instant success when first produced in 1993. It has been produced by many professional and community theaters since then. Indeed, it was produced by the Little Theatre of Alexandria just last January.

The play has been successful because of its high concept, the cleverness of its dialogue and the mixture of wacky comedy and intriguing intellectual ideas. At heart it is a debate between the proponents of art and those of science, as if those two avenues of the human mind were mutually exclusive. The argument is between Picasso, who believes a revolution in art will be the important feature of the twentieth century, and Einstein, who believes it will be the scientific advances that mark the century.

It is the comic skill of Martin that keeps this from being a dry intellectual exercise. Instead, it is a frequently fun and funny short evening (the one act play takes just over an hour and a half) with many more characters than just Einstein and Picasso.

In this production there's Rich Montgomery as the bartender who can't do the math on bar bills in the confusing French monetary system, James A. Howard as an art dealer who brings a painting by Matisse into the bar but insists the important thing isn't the picture, it is the frame, and Jennifer Richter as a woman entranced by celebrity.

Two challengers for superstardom to rival Picasso and Einstein's are played by Brian Randall and Mike Kozemchak. Neither gets all the comic mileage from Martin's script that is to be had but both help set up Martin's major points.

The best of the supporting performances comes from Susan Marie Rhea as the barmaid whose comments on the patrons are delivered with a fine blend of flippancy and fire.

All of this takes place on a wide set representing the Lapin Agile bar in the Montmontre section of Paris. The name means "nimble rabbit" and may come from the picture of a rabbit leaping out of a pan in the sign over its front door.

Yes, the bar actually exists. Indeed, it was a favorite haunt for Picasso and the subject of one of his paintings. But the events in the play are a pure flight of fancy — and quite a lot of fun.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.