Steve Martin Making Stage Magic

Steve Martin Making Stage Magic

At one point early in his career, Steve Martin wanted to be a magician. Instead, he's become one of the most popular and highest-paid of Hollywood movie stars. He still dabbles in magic, however, his latest sleight-of-hand being his transformation from screen actor to bonafide playwright with his hit comedy "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," which opened last October at the Promenade Theatre Off-Broadway. The appeal of playwriting for Martin, however, sounds a bit more like ventriloquism than magic.

"The great thing about playwriting is that you can put down thoughts and feelings that you think you might mean, or only half mean, or aren't sure you want to mean, and put them in a character's mouth," he says over a lunch of grilled salmon, fresh vegetables and iced tea.

The subterfuge is classic for a person who has always fiercely guarded his private life while taking daring chances in his artistic career. At 50--a milestone which partly spurred the career change--Martin is a curious mix of flaky boyishness and somber, at times forbidding, intelligence. He enters the upper East Side restaurant in casual chic--a smart vest over white shirt and jeans, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap over his famous, now thinning, white hair. He's apologetic for being late and then, turning himself over to a process of celebrity he clearly finds difficult, all business. Acknowledging that he is an "interloper" among the New York playwriting community, Martin says he found the reviews for the show to be "fair." "There was rarely one about 'this celebrity writer who's come to town,' " he says. Then, with deadpan irony, he adds, "I believe the play holds up. I know it has faults, but then so does the Mona Lisa."

Like its author, "Picasso" is both irreverent and earnest. Yet the characters into whose mouths Martin has chosen to put words are no dummies. The playwright conjures up a fictional meeting between Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso in 1904 at the beginning of a century that would be forever changed by their respective leaps of faith into science and art.

Sketching two of the world's greatest thinkers might be a bit daunting--he calls himself "naïve" for doing it--but Martin places them, both young and on the brink of their discoveries, in the most accessible of contexts: a Montmartre cafe called Lapin Agile populated with assorted types, including a sexy artist's model, a wisecracking septuagenarian, a grasping art dealer, a philosophical barkeeper and his shrewd wife. Then, too, there are some surprises here, namely Schmendiman, a clownish figure who is a comic foil to Einstein and Picasso; and a mysterious Visitor from Memphis who is a complement to them.

"For me, it was about the moment just prior," says Martin, visibly relaxing and digging into his food with astonishing speed. "It was a year before Theory of Relativity and three before Picasso was to paint 'Demoiselles D'Avignon.' They're in the middle of it; they don't know what they got, and it's also the moment before you take life seriously. So I could have them talking about their ideas but also about drinking and about girls."

Martin first workshopped "Picasso" in a small theatre in Australia--as far away from Hollywood and New York as he could get--and then two years ago, the Steppenwolf Company stepped in, producing it first in Chicago and then in Los Angeles, where it ran for nine months. The playwright says that as soon as he knew that the play, whatever its faults, was seaworthy, he immediately began a new project. "I didn't want to be intimidated by the success at whatever level of 'Picasso' from writing another play."

That follow-up work, four one-acts under the collective title of "WASP and Other Plays," was presented in January at the Public Theater in lower Manhattan. Bleaker and more absurdist in tone than "Picasso," the one-acts were loosely autobiographical, giving some insight into the personal background of the reclusive star.

Girls and manifestos, which go hand in hand at the Lapin Agile, were apparently also part of Martin's own youthful experimentations. Growing up in Southern California in the 1950s in a bastion of conservatism, he says that two things hit him hard: Elvis Presley and the emergence of the beatnik word, "nonconformist."

"I was conflicted about Elvis," he says. "I wasn't supposed to like him, because he was so naughty, swiveling his hips, and that's not the way we were raised. But from 15 or 16 on, from the first time I heard the word 'non-conformist,' it became my mantra. I didn't even know what it meant, but I knew I wanted to be that."

Martin discovered his subversiveness through comedy in one of the happiest periods of his life, hanging out at clubs, dating girls and trying out material. At 20 he even devised his own loose but personal comic manifesto made up of the following tenets: One, all material had to be original; two, never give an audience a punchline; and three, be funny inside. The last one, he says, " . . . was like a knob inside your head that you just turned, a state of mind, so that even if you were to just stand there and say nothing, you'd be funny."

While he was writing his own stand-up material, he was learning to create dialogue and sketch material for television variety acts, including the Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher. Once he went into films, he won awards for his screenplays for L.A. Story and Roxanne, his 1987 adaptation of the Cyrano legend. But in 1988 he co-starred with Robin Williams in a Mike Nichols production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which whetted his appetite for a life in the theatre. He discovered that he preferred playwriting to screenwriting three years ago when he began to set down his random thoughts on what life with Picasso and Einstein might be like at Lapin Agile.

Indeed, a wide vein of silliness has always been at the core of Martin's comedic art, and that is as true of the plays as of his first comedy recordings. Early on, Martin referred to it as "a sacrifice to stupidity." (Remember the guy with the arrow through his head?) So it's not surprising that when he is asked which character he'd most likely play in Picasso, he responds, "I'd love to play Picasso, but I can't, so I'd probably play Schmendiman." Schmendiman is a fool, someone who is so certain of his genius that he expects his name to reverberate grandly through the millennia. The character is not only Martin's joke on the elusiveness of genius but also the transitoriness of fame and fortune. Indirectly, it also seems to be a joke on himself.

"I believe that genius can come from anywhere, from the uneducated, from the poor, from those with little or no breeding," he says. "And it doesn't have to be for a lifetime; it can be just a minute. Elvis had it because, for a while, he was in touch with his pure heart. He was the pop side of genius."

Given the vicissitudes of fame and fortune, perhaps Martin has acceded to the idea of tuning out the noise of celebrity in favor of getting in touch with his "pure heart." He admits that he will be considered a "dilettante of a playwright" until he gets more work under his belt. But for now he's trying to savor his hard-earned success in his new arena.

"On one hand I think it's fabulous that my first play is a success on whatever level, but on the other hand I'm thinking I probably won't have another success," he says with a grin.

Is he still the same man who once said he never gets an exhilaration from success to equal the depression he gets from failure?

"Uhhmmmm." Pause. "No. You have to learn to enjoy success. I did. And now I am. I am. Uh-huh, yeah."

-- By Patrick Pacheco