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At TheatreVirginia, art and science collide when Einstein meets "Picasso at the Lapin Agile."

A Meeting of the Minds

There are moments in "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," currently running at TheatreVirginia, that sparkle with an intoxicating mix of intellect and slapstick. Celebrated comedian, writer and playwright Steve Martin uses his command of language to develop many clever turns of phrase and a few sensational soliloquies. He also boldly strides into the realm of the self-conscious, allowing characters to talk about when the play is going to end or how they are listed in the show's program.

But these moments are like decorative garlands spread over the branches of a tree that can barely hold their weight. Weak limbs include a paper-thin plot that can be summarized in a sentence: Picasso and Einstein meet in a French bar called Le Lapin Agile in 1904, just as both are poised to change the face of history. A couple of incompletely drawn female characters and some sketchy folderol about the nature of genius are other feeble elements.

Still, there is enough going for this production to keep it standing proud and tall. Martin's strength is his ability to blend insight with wit, and as Albert Einstein, actor Richard Ruiz embodies that combination. Ruiz effectively projects scientific zeal but also expertly tosses off potty-humor punchlines. Appropriately rumpled but also a bit of a rogue, this Einstein arrives in Paris not on any great mission but rather to meet a girlfriend. Though there is no historical fact behind the accidental meeting with Picasso, it is fun to imagine the young scientist squaring off in an intellectual duel with the cocky Spanish painter. His methodical explication of an absurd joke is a particular treat.

As Picasso, Chaz Mena is forced to do a lot of Latin lover-style posturing and yet, when he gets talking about art, you can catch a whiff of the genius he is portraying. There are delightful surprises in the rest of the cast, particularly Allan Hickle-Edwards as Picasso's art dealer, Sagot. His explanation of why no one buys paintings of Jesus is a gem. TVa stalwart Jana Thompson lights up the stage as a lover of Picasso named Suzanne but is wasted in two other bit parts.

As per usual at TVa, director George Black has employed a top-notch technical crew to get all the details right. Costume and scenic designer Sarah Eckert deserves special recognition not only for her period-perfect costumes but also for the last-scene surprise that is enhanced by her finely detailed set.

That last-scene surprise involves a time-traveling Visitor (played by Scott Duffy) who arrives at the bar to deliver a vision to Picasso. His appearance embodies both the powerful strengths and intermittent weaknesses of Martin's skewed vision. The Visitor completes the circle of genius in a totally unexpected — but philosophically sound — way and provides the cosmically satisfying third person to round out the triptych. But I also couldn't help but wonder if the playwright was looking for a way — any way — to wrap things up. Even with its occasional clinkers, however, you'll find plenty of food for thought and excuses to laugh being served up at the "Lapin

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