Picture this: Bearlike, charismatic Pablo Picasso (Peter Michael Goetz) sits in a dark, stone cellar amid stacks of paintings, staring intently at his beautiful female model, who happens to be a Nazi official (Lucie Arnaz). As the woman begins to disrobe, Picasso sketches furiously, and despite the dank, dark surroundings, you can feel the temperature start to rise. That's the most memorable moment in A Picasso, now playing at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, but unfortunately, it's the final one. Jeffrey Hatcher's two-character drama is written as an intermissionless one-act but feels like the first act of something more: Just when Goetz and Arnaz get going, the entire thing's over.
The story tracks a single encounter between Picasso and the official during the German occupation of Paris in World War II. The female character, Fischer, has been ordered to ascertain the authenticity of three alleged Picasso originals, which she claims are for a new exhibition. But wily Picasso manages to tease out the truth -- the Nazis want "a Picasso" for a picture-burning exhibition to destroy "degenerate art." Of course, the artist refuses, but Fischer offers a devil's bargain: Identify one and the other two can be saved by being termed "fakes." Thus begins a verbal fencing match between the ursine, voluble artist and the prim, tightly coiled bureaucrat that ranges from the nature of art and the clash of art and politics on through the details of Picasso's life. Each of the three works comes from a different era in his life, and each was motivated by deeply personal events.
The play is graced by classy work from director John Tillinger and his cast. Goetz's Picasso is a Rabelaisian figure, selfish, sensual, and crude. As Fischer, Arnaz appears to be playing the supporting role, but as the story unwinds, it's Fischer who is revealed to have inner conflicts and hence more dramatic punch, a process that Arnaz traces skillfully. Set designer Derek McLane's arched cavern and Duane Schuler's moody lighting inject romance and weight. Hatcher's bright dialogue, however, for all the chat about art and politics, seems more interested in snippets of Picasso's biography and snappy one-liners (the gags about Germans and Nazis read like a joke book) than exploring something significant. In fact, the entire play seems to lack much of a point beyond offering a portrait of the artist as an old satyr.
Only at the end, when these two characters teeter toward what might become a really strange sexual encounter, does some on-stage drama suddenly ignite. At that point, all sorts of possibilities could arise for Picasso and Fischer. But those must wait for another play.
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