Theater Reviews

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Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, Westwood
Through March 25


Unlike David Mamet's "Speed-the-Plow," its trenchant stablemate at the full-size Geffen Playhouse, Jeffrey Hatcher's "A Picasso" is a lighthearted divertimento, a play on words and ideas between the great painter (Peter Michael Goetz) and a fictional art critic-turned-interrogator (Roma Downey). In an easygoing, absorbing 100 minutes the two discuss art, politics and sex in a random free-for-all that entertains but demands little of the audience. The play was the winner of the Barrymore Award for best new play of 2003.

The setting is a forbidding dungeonlike vault beneath the streets of Paris in fall 1941. In preparation for a ritual burning of what the Nazis consider decadent art, the German Ministry of Culture has sent interrogator Miss Fischer (Downey) to obtain a genuine Picasso from among a collection of possible forgeries. Obviously, the best person to make the call is Picasso himself, and so the great man is invited down for a chat.

The two quickly begin to play a cat-and-mouse confrontation, with the artist taking various philosophical positions to avoid committing to his real feelings about war and the 1,000-year regime and his interrogator trying to cover up her real motives and intentions.

At the end, as breasts on both sides are bared, the disconnect between the cleverness of the concluding plot device and the substance of the serious issues that have preceded it allows each of the protagonists to enjoy their centers of power and moments of triumph. The script is necessarily wordy but handles the weightier subjects with reasonable elegance and grace.

Throughout, the efficient design of the 117-seat theater, which has the audience divided on two sides of the underground vault, allows Goetz and Downey to reflect the intellectual and emotional gulfs that separate them -- and occasionally draw them together -- as they circle around a table, drawing close, then apart. Director Gilbert Cates has done a masterful job of fluidly choreographing their movement so that it never seems contrived and is always in sync with their words.

Although Goetz has little of the animal athleticism we expect from Picasso, he does have the artist's voyeuristic gleam in his eye and a mature sort of boyish charm that goes with it, and his sexual advances toward Downey, though always carefully measured, carry with them charismatic purpose and conviction. This definitely is a man to whom women would be drawn. His accent is only vaguely recognizable as Spanish, but at least it rarely is obtrusive.

On the other hand, the beautiful Downey, who plays a helpless victim of world affairs and the Reich, never convincingly unleashes either the Teutonic or sexual aspects of her character. Downey's German accent is uncomfortably shaky, leading her, for example, to pronounce the name of the sinister German propaganda minister as "gobbles." And while Goetz clearly feels increasingly attracted to her, their physical chemistry takes a while to ignite. And so the game is not between equal combatants, and the play loses substantially.

A PICASSO
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse
Credits:
Playwright: Jeffrey Hatcher
Director: Gilbert Cates
Set designer: Francois-Pierre Couture
Costume designer: Christina Haatainen Jones
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Sound designer: Jon Gottlieb
Production stage manager: Amy E. Bristol
Dramaturg: Amy Levinson Millan
Casting: Phyllis Schuringa
Cast:
Pablo Picasso: Peter Michael Goetz
Miss Fischer: Roma Downey
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