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Steve Martin, the Playwright, on Einstein, Picasso and Fruit Tea : Theater: His one-act play, which creates a conversation between the artist and the scientist, is ready to open in L.A. 'It's now ready to be done somewhere where there's a risk to me,' he says.

October 20, 1994|DIANE HAITHMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Martin greets a visitor politely enough outside the Four Seasons Hotel dining room before a scheduled 4 o'clock tea--but his voice is tinged with disappointment. You see, it's still 10 minutes to 4, and Martin had planned to use those 10 minutes to finish the crossword puzzle he carries clutched under one arm. Partly inked in with tidy black letters, the puzzle does indeed appear to have a good 10 minutes worth of blank squares to go.

But, once done, running into someone ahead of schedule is difficult to undo. So Martin gamely heads for his window table to talk about his new comedy, "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," which opens at the Westwood Playhouse on Saturday. The one-act play creates a hypothetical meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in Paris, 1904, shortly before Einstein published "The Special Theory of Relativity" and Picasso painted "Les Demoiselles D'Avignon."

But, before launching into heady discussions of this explosive fictional meeting, Martin has something else on his mind. He makes a habit of not watching his old movies and TV appearances ("strange and horrible"), but happened to catch an old interview with himself on TV the night before and wondered how that dull, pedantic fellow on the screen could possibly be Steve Martin.

"I was (studying) quarks--you know how, when you look at them, they change?" Martin said, using the scientific term for the hypothetical building blocks of subatomic particles (a word that rarely finds its way into casual conversation). "I know I'm exactly the same doing interviews. I know I just change ." He paused. "And then I looked at myself and said, like, 'Maybe I am this deadly boring, serious person.' " He laughed, then turned somber again.

Martin is hardly dead serious and boring. However, he exhibits none of the wild and crazy persona one might expect from a man who first came to national prominence in the zany laboratory of "Saturday Night Live." As Martin talks about his most recent incarnation as a playwright, he seems professorial, intellectual, introspective and maybe just a little . . . quarky.

If there are any laughs in a conversation with Martin, they are of the kind described in "Lapin Agile" as "icebox laughs." Einstein: "You don't laugh now, but an hour later you're at home, standing at the icebox, and you laugh."

Take tea at the Four Seasons, for example. Martin is presented with a dizzying array of options. "Orange pekoe. No. Lemon verbena? Black currant, that sounds cute. But is that caffeinated?" Martin ends up with passion fruit tea--which has caffeine, but about half as much as the other flavors. Later, back at the icebox, the situation is reminiscent of the coffee scene from Martin's "L.A. Story," in which a table full of Westsiders, deep into the designer coffee religion, order such bizarre permutations as double half-caf espresso with a twist.

Martin is buoyed today not just by the dose of half-caf, but by the fact that his play, to be performed here by the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company, has enjoyed critical success in Chicago and Boston. He has also written another play, "Wasp," a surreal comedy about a '50s family much like Martin's own, which has been performed twice--at the Ensemble Studio Theatre and at Vassar--and is slated to open in New York in the fall, at a yet-to-be named venue.

He is happy to be bringing "Lapin" home to Los Angeles, and happy that critics, so far , have not adopted the stance that a Hollywood comedy star couldn't possibly write good theater. "New York is a place (where the critics) would really kill me because I'm in movies, so I'm not really eager to take ("Lapin") there," he says. "But it's now ready to be done somewhere where there's a risk to me, and that's L.A.

"I've already been reviewed 20 times with it, so I pretty much know what the critical position is, or can be. You are always vulnerable to someone's bad mood, or other vision. But at least it's not a horrible celebrity exercise."

While he has no plans to give up movies--he stars in Nora Ephron's "Mixed Nuts," a black comedy about a suicide hot line slated to open in December--right now Martin is happiest as a playwright. When he decided to try writing a play, in 1991, Martin says, "I was starting to get really interested in theater. It looked like a real challenge. I thought, 'I wonder if I could do that, because if I could do that . . .

"I think you go through your career trying to prove to yourself that you can do something. And even after you've done it, you're still trying to prove it. So I thought that would prove if I were a writer or not, if I could write a play."

Martin says he was tempted to take a role in "Lapin Agile" but didn't want the play to transform into a one-man show. In "Wasp," he says, there is a role for him, but thus far he hasn't been able to bring himself to play it because it hits a little too close to home.

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