Bass for Picasso
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 1, 2010
Something I have in common with Kate Moira Ryan, author of the smart new comedy Bass for Picasso, is that we both own and have read The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. (I haven't ever attempted to cook any of its recipes, however.) Francesca Danieli, the high-brow food columnist who is one of the leading characters in Ryan's play, also loves the Cookbook, and it is her intention, for the dinner party depicted in Bass for Picasso, to cook an entire meal drawn from Toklas's chatty, ingenuously elitist, impossible to implement compendium. The play's title comes from one of the dishes Francesca is attempting, which is described in part by Toklas thus:
One day when Picasso was to lunch with us I decorated a fish in a way I thought would amuse him....A short time before serving it I covered the fish with an ordinary mayonnaise and, using a pastry tube, decorated it with a red mayonnaise, not coloured with catsup—horror of horrors—but with tomato paste. Then I made a design with sieved hard-boiled eggs, the whites and the yolks apart, with truffles and with finely chopped fines herbes. I was proud of my chef d'oeuvre when it was served and Picasso exclaimed at its beauty. But, said he, should it not rather have been made in honour of Matisse than of me.
Most of the characters in Bass for Picasso are as ingratiating and maddeningly self-involved as must have been the writer of those words. Kev is a playwright who, still having to support himself as a bartender at 40, is very hungry for a hit and jumps at a chance to have something produced by a prominent NYC nonprofit theatre, even if it means betraying people he supposedly cares for. Bricka, another playwright, is coping with a potential custody fight for the child she and her partner were raising before her partner died, but she is nonetheless immediately ready to wreak a bit of revenge of Francesca when she discovers who she really is. And Joe, an ob/gyn, trades bon-mots with the others while trying to deal with his drug-addicted boyfriend and a genuinely horrifying emergency at the hospital where he works.
Most extravagantly, there is Pilar, Francesca's partner, surely one of the most delicious comic creations to appear on an American stage in quite a while. Pilar, of unknown but presumably European origin, exists in a universe of her own but cannot be said to be crazy: she's a willfully clueless eccentric, the kind of character that the creators of The Addams Family should have written into their musical. Here's part of Pilar's conversation with Bricka, comparing notes around raising their young sons:
BRICKA: We go to Toys R Us.
PILAR: What is that?
BRICKA: It's a store for kids. It sells toys.
PILAR: A store only for kids? What an incredible idea, I hope it catches on. I usually just take Phillipe down to the army and navy store and just buy him what he wants. They are so nice there. They file down the bayonets so he does not hurt himself. The pins on the grenades are less easy to fix.
Bass for Picasso traces the course of Francesca's dinner, a string of catastrophes and outlandish events that would seem implausible in another context: Kev is ordered upstairs to help Pilar's boys plan their living tableaux of scenes from Beauty and the Beast; Joe's boyfriend Bob calls every 20 minutes from another distant location, hoping that Pilar can speak whatever language seems to be indigenous to the neighborhood he's stumbled into; Francesca marches from the bathroom to the kitchen with a huge tub from which countless frog's legs hang off the side. It's hilarious stuff. Though all of the characters are gay, there's nothing particularly campy about it; one of Ryan's points here surely is that gay people are just as insufferably self-centered and boring as everyone else.
But the larger point has to do with how we help each other, or don't; how at a certain point in life we either figure out what's actually important in life, or we don't. Being gay or in a stable relationship or a parent ultimately has nothing to do with this. Francesca begins the play singing along to Bette Midler's iconic song "Friends" and the irony is clear almost immediately, for Francesca has none and never can have any. But Joe, talking a colleague through procedures to save a pregnant 13-year-old he left behind at the hospital and caring for a lover who has inexplicably set himself on a path of self-destruction, always will.
Ryan's play is being presented by Theater Breaking Through Barriers, the invaluable indie troupe that casts people with various disabilities in roles most companies wouldn't consider them for. Francesca is written in the script as an amputee, and she's played by one, Anita Hollander, with vigor and bravada. But I had to read through some of the press materials to discover that another actor on stage is deaf and another has a prosthetic arm; TBTB's whole raison d'etre is to demonstrate that such things needn't get in the way of an actor's craft, and they're absolutely right. Mary Theresa Archbold is a plucky, smart Bricka; Terry Small seems perhaps too young for the role of Kev, but delivers an earnest portrayal; and TBTB stalwart Nicholas Viselli is terrific as Joe, showing us all the sides of the complicated, well-fleshed-out character. Felice Neals has the plum role of Felice, and she's dizzyingly daffy yet grounded as this larger-than-life lady. Ike Schambelan's direction felt a touch slow-moving, but I'm sure this will improve as the run settles in.
I had a ball at Bass for Picasso; after a diet of so many revivals and inwardly-focused dramas this season, an authentically witty and intelligent comedy that recognizes how community is built one person at a time felt like the same kind of exotic and nurturing treat that Ms. Toklas intended to cook up for her friend the artist.