A Tale Told by an Idiot 

Steve Martin's Picasso may be described as a theatrical virus.

To try to recapture the hellish ninety minutes that make up Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile at the Cleveland Play House, one must conjure up the worst symptoms of the flu. Under Peter Hackett's feverish direction, everything passes before the audience's eyes in a blur, and all of it is feverish, futile, nonsensical, lacking coherence, and inducing nausea.

The play (if you want to dignify this overextended sketch with the term "play") is set in a bar in an MTV Twilight Zone, a sort of mock Gay Paree, where everyone shouts foolish jokes and non sequiturs in faux European accents. (Bartender to Picasso and Einstein: "The only reason why you got into physics and arts was to meet girls.")

It's all a never-ending Saturday Night Live-type sketch, where foreshadowing character development and consecutive thought are anathema. It is metaphysical vaudeville gone bonkers. A perpetually lecherous young Picasso chases glory and women, scratching doves into their hands as a come-on. A nutty Einstein solves mathematical problems and obscenely flashes his theory of relativity. A barmaid predicts the future. On it goes: A woman of easy virtue is repeatedly seduced; a superfluous old geezer with a weak bladder makes periodic dashes to the john.

What happens when a meretricious comedian is given free reign with a budget and a word processor? It seems that this time, Steve Martin's cranium has really been pierced by that trademark arrow. He has created a gigantic germ of a play, a first draft from hell that would never have seen the light of day without his fame and fortune. He either sets back playwriting to the darkest ages or has written a frightening bellwether of a future, where plays are nothing but facile history sound bytes. As Macbeth said, it is "a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing." Or, as Romeo remarked to Mercutio, "Thou talk'st of nothing." The Play House wisely did not include an intermission, knowing that no one was likely to return to his or her seat.

Performers who formerly graced the Play House stage with poise and dignity are reduced to blithering idiots in this production. This is perhaps the worst theatrical experience one can endure without becoming brain-damaged. Just when you think things have reached their chaotic breaking point, there appears, out of a tear in the universe, Elvis Presley warning Einstein and Picasso not to step on his blue suede shoes.

If this play has had extended runs in San Francisco (where everyone is crazy anyway) and other cities, it can be attributed to the Emperor's New Clothes Theory, which is: People don't want to admit that they're not hip enough to dig this surrealistic hodgepodge.

For those who have not experienced this theatrical virus, it may sound like a madcap romp, but for those who had to endure Martin's puerile attack on twentieth-century culture, this empty-headed grad-school debate between art and science and ineptness and pretentiousness is no laughing matter.

To spare future careers and reputations, I will not, as McCarthy did, name names. But rumor has it that the Play House intends to destroy this city's reputation by taking this production to certain Eastern European capitals, in the name of the American way of life and civic pride. I beg the board of the Cleveland Play House to reconsider.

If the above review has been somewhat wishy-washy, let me reiterate in the strongest of terms, for your own mental health: You're better off reaffirming your faith in human nature by watching Roxanne.

Picasso at the Lapin Agile, through March 14 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000.

More by Keith A. Joseph

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