The Frugal Repast
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
February 7, 2007
Ron Hirsen's new comedy, The Frugal Repast, is a little implausible—two circus performers in 1913 Paris steal a limited edition Picasso print, hold it for ransom, and end up getting invited to dinner with the artist, his dealer, and other notable guests including Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas—but it's funny, and takes a gently irreverent view of its historical characters. Even though I think Hirsen could go much further in his exploration of both the play's themes and conflict, it's clear that what he's got right now is diverting for both the actors and the audience.
The protagonists are two circus performers who refer to each other only by their pet names: "My sausage" (the Man) and "My brioche" (the Woman). Their young son—"the little dumpling"—is sick, but they can't afford to take him to the doctor. So, they decide to steal a picture by Pablo Picasso entitled The Frugal Repast from a local art gallery, and ransom it in order to raise the money. They are confident that the 1,000 franc ransom will be paid, no questions asked, even though the gallery is only charging 300 for it.
Why this picture? It turns out that Sausage and Brioche are the couple shown in the picture. Outraged at the theft of their likenesses—and the perceived invasion of their privacy—they lift the picture partly to get revenge on Picasso. What they don't know is that the picture is one of 250 limited edition prints of an original etching by the artist. When their ransom note goes unanswered, and a duplicate replacement of the stolen print appears in the gallery window, Sausage and Brioche plot to steal it again. (They never quite grasp the whole replica idea.)
Meanwhile, the gallery owner, Ambroise Vollard, and his Friday night salon of dinner guests, which includes Stein and Toklas, art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, and Picasso himself, wonder about the identity and motive of "the Liberators of Art" (as Sausage and Brioche call themselves in the ransom note). Picasso is so taken with the thieves' ransom note—a collage of letters cut out from the newspaper—that he makes his own inviting them to dinner.
Once all the characters are in the same room together, Hirsen commences to debate the value of art, which basically boils down to: each person puts their own value on it. More interesting is the fun Hirsen has with the characters, like Picasso's wonderment over the ransom note, which he considers art as well. There's also a good running gag in which Picasso brings a different woman to dinner every week (all played by the same actress, the terrific Kathleen McElfresh). And, there are some gentle jokes about Stein and Toklas being an everyday normal couple (which, in their crowd, I guess they were). It's a little disappointing that Hirsen doesn't put Sausage and Brioche more front and center, especially since they're the driving force behind the play, but he gets good mileage out of everything he chooses to focus on.
Director Joe Grifasi has put together a nice production here. It's paced well, funny, and well-acted. My favorites in a cast full of standouts include McElfresh, Roberto DeFelice as an amusingly self-absorbed Picasso, David Wohl as the level-headed Vollard, and Harold Todd as Sausage. Todd's kind, endearing demeanor is reminiscent of the young Jack Lemmon.
The Frugal Repast may be slight, but it's also well done. Grifasi and the entire cast display a fine balance of craft and inspiration in servicing a play that, as entertaining as it may be, could use a little bit more of both.