Get local news delivered straight to your phone

Steve Martin writes comedies the way he writes comedy. He’s a firm believer in the value of domesticated anarchy, whether shredding logic in a stand-up routine or imagining what might happen if a 23-year-old quantum theorist named Albert and a 25-year-old painter named Pablo had met in a bar in 1904 just before either of them became famous.

In Picasso in the Lapin Agile, the Martin romp that has just breezed into Ford’s Theatre, for instance, a character has no sooner said, “My name is Albert Einstein” and rumpled his hair to prove it than another character—a bartender, as it happens—is heading out into the audience to borrow a program and demonstrate that he can’t possibly be who he says he is.

“See?” says this cheerful breaker of theatrical convention as he runs down the cast list, “you’re third….Einstein comes on fourth.”

Clearly, we’ve entered vaudeville territory, but Martin doesn’t keep us there long. Soon his characters are leading us brightly into absurdist domains dominated by Wildean paradox (“A triangle with four points is what Euclid flies into hell”) and the relativist equivalent of Stoppardian banter (“Y = N(X)…God, that’s funny”).

Not every playwright would think to have a lovely lass answer the question “Do you know Picasso?” with the conversation-stopper “Twice.” But before you decide that this is simply what comes of writing punch lines for a living, you’ll want to consider where Martin is going with Picasso in the Lapin Agile. We’re not talking earth-shattering drama here, but this is definitely a play of ideas.

Among those ideas is the notion that both art and science have a way of zeroing in on the qualities that make us human. There is, for instance, as you will gather from the way Picasso (James Asher) and Einstein (Dan Hiatt) compete for the attentions of an attractive redhead (Susannah Schulman), a special knowledge each man brings to seduction. That Einstein’s approach is more artful, whereas Picasso is a master at putting research to good effect, only makes the distinctions between them more intriguing.

There’s more—observations on aging from the perspective of a “newly old man” (Will Marchetti) and on male frailties by a barmaid (Kimberly King) who knows her way around fragile egos. There’s commentary on celebrity capitalism by a blowhard (Michael Oosterom, doing a nifty Steve Martin impersonation), and there are quips about artistic capitalism from a too-knowing gallery owner (Ken Grantham). And every once in a while, just because he can, Martin throws in a line that’s not going anywhere in particular, but that simply strikes the ear prettily. “A mirror is like a mind….If you don’t use it, it loses its power to reflect” is a fairly typical example.

The cast ranges from fine to pretty wonderful, and with Randall Arney’s staging requiring them to keep the pace at something just this side of a gallop, the evening clocks in at a snappy 85 minutes. It’s literate, clever, and frothy enough that it will likely have entirely evaporated from your consciousness by the time you hit the street after the curtain calls. All you’ll remember is a warm glow and the sound of laughter.

There’s something instructive about watching a production misfire on all cylinders at once. The advance word on the Rep Stage/Source Theatre mounting of Les Liaisons Dangereuses suggested that it might be falling victim to the vainglorious decision of Rep Stage artistic director Valerie Costantini to play the evening’s ferocious central role. She is indeed dreadful in the part, but the production’s problems hardly end with the black hole that her performance places at the play’s center.

Christopher Hampton’s dipped-in-acid dramedy is a corker of a story of sexual intrigue, as many patrons will recall from either the Royal Shakespeare Company’s blistering Broadway mounting or the provocatively chilly film version, Dangerous Liaisons (which starred John Malkovich and Glenn Close). It concerns a conspiracy in pre-Revolution Paris between the voluptuously cunning Marquise de Merteuil (Costantini) and her seductively unprincipled pal, the Vicomte de Valmont (Rick Foucheux), to deflower an innocent girl for no better reason than that it will pass the time and mortify the virginity-obsessed man she’s about to marry. That the Vicomte is simultaneously trying to woo the pious Madame de Tourvel (Sarah Ripard) from her husband adds a degree of difficulty to his task. Bets are made. Quips are exchanged. Lives are ruined. It’s theoretically great fun.

Support City Paper!

$
$
$

Your contribution is appreciated.

Not, however, in the lugubrious production that has settled heavily on the stage of the Smith Theatre. Nothing about this mounting works—not the contemporary costumes, nor the conversational acting style, nor the visually impressive but completely wrongheaded setting, which seems to place the action in the National Gallery’s East Wing. Not even the stagewide turntable really works—at least not the way it should—since turntables are supposed to make set changes quicker, while this one revolves so slowly that the actors must freeze in tableaux at the ends of scenes Hampton designed to flow gracefully into one another.

As has been his habit with such period classics as Romeo and Juliet and The Cherry Orchard, director (and Washington City Paper opera critic) Joe Banno has found plenty of clever ways to modernize the story. But this time, a question arises: To what purpose? Although Hampton based Les Liaisons Dangereuses on an 18th-century epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos, the play itself is barely a decade old. It was written in part to show the timelessness of the sorts of carnal intrigue that contemporary audiences tend to associate exclusively with celebrity scandals and soap operas. So moving the play’s action to the present and turning its brittle repartee into casual conversation can’t really be said to make the story more accessible. All it does is remove the class distinctions that make the play’s acerbic quips at the expense of the idle rich, rich.

And what does the audience get in return? Limp liaisons amongst the country-club set. Costantini plays the evening’s chief voluptuary as a matronly suburban hausfrau who imagines herself a femme fatale. Vulgar, bulky, graceless, and with an annoying habit of tilting her head back at the ends of sentences as if she thinks she’s just gotten off a good one, this Marquise couldn’t put bite into a quip if she grew an extra pair of incisors. The characterization suggests Linda Tripp at a Republican fundraiser. Rick Foucheux’s Vicomte is hardly better, with bad posture, a bulging waistline, and a wearily earnest manner being his surest assets as a seducer. Forget sexual chemistry between these two. About the only sin it’s easy to imagine them having indulged in together is gluttony.

Of the supporting cast, Ripard’s soft-spoken, East Indian Madame de Tourvel and Jennifer Selby Albright’s frightened virgin make decent impressions, although as emblems of rectitude, both have been way too skimpily attired by costumier Annie Kennedy. Ripard’s low-necked, bare-midriff saris, in particular, suggest she’s renowned not for her virtue, but for her belly dancing.

Tony Cisek’s imposing, asymmetrical stone walls and the angular, hard-edged, ever-shifting beams of light with which Dan Covey illuminates them are vivid reminders that, despite most other evidence, this is still a professional production. The company should save them for its next Greek tragedy, for which they’ll be infinitely more appropriate.

Quíntuples is also a bust, but not because Gala Hispanic Theatre is producing it ineptly. The play—and the use of that term amounts to shameless flattery—is the nearest thing to a dramatic nullity I’ve seen at an area theater in several seasons.

A collection of six skits by Puerto Rican author Luis Rafael Sánchez, the evening purports to take patrons to a Conference on Family Affairs where the speakers are all members of the same clan. Three of the characters are male (dad and two of the titular quints), and three are female (the other three quints)—which means the roles can be evenly split between performers Hugo Medrano and Claudia Dammert, both of whom are energetic and resourceful.

Abel López has found all sorts of ways to get them out into the audience and to vary the stand-up routines they must deliver, since the author hasn’t seen fit to place any two characters on stage at the same time. Given that structure, it might have been more fun to have a single performer play all the characters, with some lightning-fast changes in costume and attitude goosing up the tension a bit. Still, even in drag, the characters wouldn’t be all that amusing. Dammert assays a tacky good-time girl, a tightly wound lesbian who’s trying to quit smoking, and a pregnant woman who’s a compulsive list-maker, while Medrano plays a painfully shy man, his arrogant magician brother, and their domineering, wheelchair-bound father.

Alessandra D’Ovidio has outfitted them in overstated but character-defining costumes that are at least as amusing as any of the lines provided by the author. I was still trying to figure out if the evening actually had a point (and I was just missing it because the headset translation kept getting out of sync), when the script’s arbitrariness was brought home with a finality that was undeniable: Medrano, who’d been playing the father in the wheelchair, pulled off the blanket that had been covering his legs, stood up, and announced that he was tired of pretending. The audience applauded—apparently it wasn’t as tired as he was—and we all went home.

As one of the 20th century’s most respected dramatists, South Africa’s Athol Fugard has certainly earned the right to bore us, but that doesn’t make The Captain’s Tiger any easier to sit through than if it had been written by a hack. This perky little reminiscence—about the author’s youthful attempts to write his first novel while working his way from South Africa to Japan on a steamship—is sweet, amiable, obviously heartfelt, and so lacking in even the most rudimentary forms of drama as to be actively annoying.

In chronicling a 20-year-old Fugard’s imaginary relationship with Betty, the bland leading character in what he hopes will be a novel “à la Tolstoy” about a beautiful Afrikaner girl modeled on his mother, and his budding friendship with an illiterate Sudanese “donkeyman” (coal stoker), the play seems to have been designed less as a narrative than as a primer on the craft of writing. “This is a pivotal scene,” says the young Fugard a bit desperately at one point. “We must give it all the buildup we can.” At another juncture, he explains to the donkeyman, “My job as a writer is to make reality dramatic, and to do that I must take liberties.”

Under the circumstances, you’d think the presence of Fugard himself in the title role would be a boon, but he’s so busy being a charming pixie that he actually makes the play seem slighter than it is. The gravity he brought to playing a chirpy storytelling codger in Valley Song is nowhere to be found in Tiger’s callow storytelling youth. And for all the valiant attempts in the KenCen’s program notes to find echoes of Master Harold…and the boys in the relationship of the donkeyman (Tony Todd) and the young Fugard, audiences aren’t likely to make any such connection.

Susan Hilferty’s set, which surrounds a simple stage platform with a few inches of water and a backdrop of shadowy bookshelves, is ill-used by the limp staging that she and the author have jointly come up with. But it’s hard to know what more could be done with material this wanly written.

“Every writer worth his salt savages his manuscript,” Fugard tells the donkeyman upon throwing his novel into the water. “If he doesn’t, the critics will.”

Agreed.CP