SAN DIEGO – Actor Justin Long was walking past the San Diego Museum of Man recently and glanced up at the many sculptures of historical figures that adorn the building’s façade.
He couldn’t help but reflect on how history remembers these monumental men for their great deeds or brilliant discoveries, but the rest of their lives – their day-to-day activities, their personalities, how they interacted with others; the very things that make them relatable – often fall through the cracks.
In a Jan. 25 telephone interview with The Southern Cross, Long said he has always been fascinated by “the idea of humanizing these illustrious figures … that we all know because of their art or their ideas.”
Not far from the museum, at The Old Globe Theatre, Long is currently doing his part to humanize one of the leading figures of the 20th century, theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, in a production of “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”
Written in the early 1990s by comedian Steve Martin, the stage comedy is running Feb. 4-March 12 on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage. In addition to Long, the cast also includes Philippe Bowgen as Pablo Picasso; Donald Faison (“Scrubs,” “Clueless”) as Freddy, bartender of the Lapin Agile; and Hal Linden (“Barney Miller”) as Gaston, one of the bar’s regular patrons.
“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” imagines Picasso and Einstein, both in their early to mid-20s and on the cusp of greatness, meeting one another at the titular bar in Paris in 1904. From this premise, Long said, comes a play that combines “stupid-funny, and smart-funny, and moments of great intellectual profundity.”
Describing the play as “quintessential Steve Martin,” Long said it wrestles with “heady concepts” like what constitutes art, what similarities exist between art and science, and the impact that fame can have on a person, but it’s also willing to tell “eloquently structured jokes that end up being ‘pee-pee’ jokes.”
While the play certainly humanizes the passionate Picasso and the intellectually curious Einstein, Long said, it has no aspirations to historical authenticity and is first and foremost a comedy. Though he adopts a German accent and attempts to convey the real-life scientist’s “sense of wonder,” he admits that his performance is “by no means an accurate depiction of Einstein.”
“I would also like to let Einstein know that, wherever he may be,” he joked.
Long, who is known for his work in such films as “DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story,” “Idiocracy” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” is no stranger to live theatre, which he credits with sparking his love of acting. But as his film and television career took off, that early success pulled him away from his first love.
“I always had the intention of going back to doing theatre,” he said, “but there’s something about, when that ball is rolling, you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize it stopping.”
But, since 2010, he has been performing on stage every year and it has done wonders for his life.
“Theatre has made me, I think, a much happier person and, I think, a better actor too,” he said.
A longtime fan of Steve Martin’s oeuvre, Long said “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” came out during his high school years, right around the time he was first bitten by the acting bug. And, several years before joining the production at The Old Globe, he did a reading of the play at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.
“It was a play I had always admired … but, I have to tell you, actually doing it has been so much more fun than I could have imagined,” he said.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit www.theoldglobe.org.