I'm not sure how I've lasted this long without ever seeing Steve Martin's Picasso at Lapin Agile playing through Sunday at New Rep in Watertown. The theatre goes so far as to call it a "classic comedy." How a show written in 1993 can already be deemed a classic is as confounding as how this production at New Rep can be called a comedy. Certainly, the writing is some of the wittiest and funniest I've heard in recent memory (save for Lyric Stage's delightfully surprising Speech and Debate). But Director Daniel Gidron and cast deliver an unsubtle, unentertaining, and mostly unfunny performance.
In an effort to be positive, I'll start with what worked which can be summed up as the single performance of Dennis Trainor as the self-possessed Charles Dabernow Schendiman. Mr. Trainor's performance alone evokes the comic sensibilities of Martin's writing. His over-the-top delivery, perfectly pompous demeanor, and smoothly choreographed blocking make his few minutes on stage a riotous respite from an otherwise droll evening. How this one performer can so perfectly capture the comedy while the rest of the production fails to evoke an iota of the laughs must be credited to this actor's unique talent for it is a stand-out performance that provides the evening's only icebox laughs (if you haven't seen the show, then you might miss that last reference).
The other "honorable mention" in the cast is the delightfully understated performances by Stacy Fischer who plays three femmes fatale throughout the performance. As the saucy seductress Suzanne, Ms. Fischer evokes a Lindsay Lohan-esque quality that makes her funny precisely because she is not trying to be so. Later, as the star-struck Female Admirer she throws caution to the wind delivering a screaming, swooning teeny-bopper whose physical dexterity is not only funny, but impressive.
What makes the show most disappointing is the casting choices of the two leading roles of Neil Casey as Einstein and Scott Sweatt as Picasso. Mr. Casey's approach to comedy is to shout all of his lines as if he were impersonating Gilbert Gottfried rather than the physicist. His lengthy monologue about the perfect selection of the letter E is funny, but the rest of his performance is migraine-inducing. Scott Sweatt's performance as Picasso is nothing less than amateurish with affected speech patterns more suited to bad Shakespeare and an awkward physical demeanor that defies his character as a suave womanizer. He may be a young actor, but his habit of putting his hands in his pockets when he doesn't know what else to do with them are usually ironed out in one's undergraduate classes. Mr. Sweatt's performance is by far the worst performance I have seen in a professional theatre in Boston this season.
Without such miscasting in the two leading roles, the supporting cast would have been serviceable, but with this misdirection the rest of the ensemble fall along a continuum from fair to mediocre. Paul Farwell as the prostate-challenged Gaston falls to the fairer end of the spectrum with a decent turn especially in his drunkenly slurred speeches. Marianna Bassham also may have given a decent performance if I weren't so distracted by her ill-designed costume and hair. Likewise, Scott Severance has a commanding presence as the art collector Sagot although he tends to ape and chew scenery more than commit to the humor. Owen Doyle's Freddy is serviceable as the unassuming barkeep, but he's mostly unassuming.
As is usual for New Rep, the set - designed by Cristina Todesco - is far more professional than the performance and well executed for the most part. It was confounding why contemporary Stolichnaya bottles were used amid the other period props, but I chalked this up to an homage of Martin's anachronistic writing. Picasso at Lapin Agile is a one of those rare gems of theatre that delivers profound observations on life through the guise of pratfalls and potty humour. Unfortunately, this production at New Rep needs much more polishing to see the gem that it is.