History Is Easy, Comedy Is Hard

There are worse things to do than sit through a boring history lesson--like attending a dismal comedy trying to pass itself off as a history lesson.

A pair of plays that plunder the past opened on neighboring stages at Herberger Theater Center last week. Actors Theatre of Phoenix's The Complete History of America (abridged) and Arizona Theatre Company's production of Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile feature unusually fine casts. Both are about 90 minutes long, and both owe more to pop culture and Saturday Night Live-style sketch comedy than they do to history texts. Both shows rely on long setups and silly sight gags, and each aims to make us laugh while commenting on recent history.

Unfortunately, only one of them succeeds.
Where Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a quick-witted fantasy that's full of laughs, Complete History is merely a fast-paced pile of slapstick sketches that covers 500 years of history with barely a chuckle. We're made to suffer a send-up of the Bill of Rights (called the Bill of Wrongs--ha ha), a Gettysburg Address presided over by a 10-foot-tall, papier-mache Abe Lincoln, and a Linda Tripp impersonator.

Poop jokes are the order of the day, and there are the obligatory audience-participation bits: a painful parody of Queen for a Day in which winners receive one of three "Great American Women" trading cards and a question-and-answer session in which audience members are berated for being stupid about American history.

Most of Act Two is given over to an unfunny radio program and a film noir homage to post-World War II America, featuring Lucy Ricardo, one of a long list of references to terrible television programs (besides riffs on I Love Lucy and Queen for a Day, there's a number about Amerigo Vespucci's "map shop" sung to the theme from Gilligan's Island and references to Charlie's Angels and The Simpsons).

The show is bloated with bad jokes ("What's the capital of North Dakota?" "About 43 cents!") and material that might have been funny in 1805--or, at least, the first time the authors foisted it on us. But playwrights Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor have used this formula before, and it's grown predictable. Written (and originally performed) by the trio, who are known primarily as the Reduced Shakespeare Company, The Complete History of America (abridged) is a follow-up to their The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged), which was produced by ATP last season, and the predecessor of a similar show spoofing the Bible. These guys have found a formula, and are milking it for all it's worth, even borrowing wholesale from themselves (Complete History steals bits from the Bard show, including a quick musical number featuring rapping Pilgrims).

My first laugh came about 20 minutes into the first act (by that time, the man on my right had confided the he "wished this show were funny," and the guy on my left had fallen asleep), and I didn't crack a smile again until a few minutes before the final curtain, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan showed up as Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

The cast (Richard Trujillo, Ben Brittain and Jon Gentry) keeps up with the script's nonstop nonsense, but, despite their expert timing and quick recovery (a number of jokes fell flat, and several antifeminist cracks were booed at the matinee I attended), the most enjoyable part of the show was the pound of free Starbucks coffee handed out to every audience member as we left the theater.

Although I didn't count, there seemed to be even more bathroom humor in Picasso at the Lapin Agile than in The Complete History of America (abridged). However, what comes between Picasso's pee jokes is more stylish and thought-provoking--not to mention more funny--than the bulk of the humor in the ATP show.

This exceptional one-act, about a fictional encounter between a youngish Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in a tatty bistro in turn-of-the-century France, is actor/writer Steve Martin's best-known play. Originally produced at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre in 1993, the show laid an egg in New York, but went on to break records the following year at Los Angeles' Westwood Playhouse and to win the 1996 Outer Critics' Circle Awards for Best Play and Best Playwright.

It's fitting that Martin would have stepped away from his Hollywood film career, which has recently landed him in dreck like Father of the Bride 2, to pen a piece about the creative process. His musings mix the Marx Brothers with Immanuel Kant, pit art against science, and come to the conclusion that a genius can change the way the world thinks, but he'll never be as famous as a rock singer.

According to his Internet profile, Picasso actually did toss back a few at the Lapin Agile (roughly translated, it means "the Nimble Rabbit"; his painting of that infamous bar sold for $40 million in 1990), but not in the company of the world's most renowned physicist. Interrupted by bar patrons who extol existentialism and occasionally speak directly to the audience, Picasso (who's just ending his Blue Period) and Einstein (on the eve of publishing his Special Theory of Relativity) stage a drawing contest, argue the similarities of art and science, and compare notes on how to pick up chicks.

Martin is trying for Tom Stoppard-like highbrow humor here, but his wild-and-crazy setups are pure Saturday Night Live. He occasionally reaches for great profundity, but his thinking is lost in gags, like the unexpected appearance of a time-traveling Elvis impersonator who delivers a 3-D message from Picasso's muse.

Director David Ira Goldstein works around Martin's occasionally eggheaded excesses, commanding his excellent cast to stomp through jokes that only art-history majors will find funny and to reach for bigger yuks elsewhere--a luxury that Bob Sorenson, who directed The Complete History of America (abridged), didn't have. Saddled with stupid sight gags and tired jokes, that show pratfalls on its face, eclipsed by Martin's thoughtful and fresh-minted historic humor on the stage next door.

Actors Theatre of Phoenix's The Complete History of America (abridged) and Arizona Theatre Company's Picasso at the Lapin Agile continue through Sunday, November 1, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela