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Steve Martin Writes a Comedy With Its Wires a Bit Crossed

THE young Pablo Picasso, narcissist and rising artist, meets Albert Einstein at a Paris bar called the Lapin Agile in 1904. The two stalk each other competitively until they realize what they have in common: unparalleled genius. Later, a time-traveling Elvis makes a brief appearance and the three legends compare notes on their pivotal contributions to the 20th century.

It's an unlikely plot, but not an unpromising one. Comedian Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) wrote the play ``Picasso at the Lapin Agile'' as a kind of riff on the imagined early careers of these superstars and to explore the nature of genius. Martin is genuinely intrigued by the thought-processes that allowed them to see things differently and so build new systems that radically changed the way humans saw the world (Cubism, Relativity, rock-and-roll).

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But Martin's own genius is comedy, more specifically snappy one-liners. He can't resist capitalizing on Picasso's womanizing, or putting nerdy math jokes in Einstein's mouth (or maybe he thinks that Big Ideas go down better if presented in sitcom style). Martin fills the Lapin Agile with a lovable buffoonish barkeeper, a goofy barfly, a wiseacre waitress, a ditzy mistress, and assorted unnecessary characters.

Some of the sight gags you can see coming, such as Picasso grabbing the bartender's face and manipulating it like one of his Cubist portraits. The jokes are quick and painless: One character calls another an ``idiot savant. Hold the savant''; and when bogus inventor Schmendiman says ``No pun intended,'' the barfly Gaston quips, ``No pun achieved.''

While ``Picasso at the Lapin Agile'' is lightly entertaining, it misses its point. The madcap jokes and gags cover up Martin's foundation of philosophical musings like cheap linoleum over parquet. Instead of pointing out absurdities in the realms of art and art dealership, promotion and science, fame and logic, Martin's play deals in stereotyped situations and stock responses. In fact, he could create a successful stand-up routine based entirely on the one-liners here.

The play is funny, but the jokes don't grow organically from the situation; they are superimposed. Martin has said that his playwriting influences include George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Beckett. Perhaps he is reaching for satire, or something that offers a deft and rueful commentary on human behavior. Two examples come to mind that provide a better example of the tone and style that is missing: Tom Stoppard's play ``Travesties'' and the film ``My Dinner With Andre.''

In the American Repertory Theatre production of Martin's play, two actors out of 11 restrain themselves from silliness: Thomas Derrah (as Einstein) and Bill Camp (as Picasso). These performers bring out the underlying ideas, giving the play more oomph and less oom-pah-pah.

* ``Picasso at the Lapin Agile'' continues at the Hasty Pudding Theater through May 29. Telephone: (617) 547-8300.

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