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Paulanne Simmons

''The Frugal Repast'' Gives an Exceptionally Full Course in Art

''The Frugal Repast''
Directed by Joe Grifasi
Abingdon Theatre Company
312 West 36th St. between 8th and 9th avenues
Opened Feb. 7, 2007
Tues. thru Sat. 7:30 p.m., matinees on Sat. 2 p.m. & Sun. 3 p.m.
$35 (212) 868-4444
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons Feb. 10, 2007

''The Frugal Repast''

What is the meaning and value of art? According to art dealer Ambroise Vollard (David Wohl) in Ron Hirsen's new play, ''The Frugal Repast, ''People only understand art if someone sells it to them.'' But the two aerialists who are the subject of Pablo Picasso's painting, The Frugal Repast, insist that the artist stole their images, and therefore the picture, at least morally speaking, belongs to them.

Guillaume Apollinaire (Frank Liotti), who along with Gertrude Stein (Lizbeth Mackay) and Alice B. Toklas (Julie Boyd), is among Vollard's circle of friends at the dinner table, believes the value of art is certainly not in the cost of the materials. But does art belong to the people or the rich individuals who have commissioned it?

Much of ''The Frugal Repast'' turns into a debate about art and society, and as such it is a play of ideas. But seldom is such a play as light, lively and interesting as Hirsen's.

Under the inspired direction of Joe Grifasi, Picasso becomes a macho ladies man who appears at each successive dinner with a new, ravishing, not terribly intelligent woman (all played brilliantly by Kathleen McElfresh). Stein (called Gertrude Stein by all and sundry) and Toklas (Miss Alice, please) have a feisty, sometimes argumentative relationship. And Apollinaire is a foppish intellectual.

Drama and pathos step onto the scene with the aerialist couple (Harold Todd and Dawn Luebbe), two harlequinesque figures who steal three copies of Picasso's limited edition print from Vollard's gallery and send the art dealer a ransom not asking one thousand francs for each one. They need the money not to go on vacation or to buy new costumes for their act, but to obtain better medical care for their ailing son (the adorable Kyrian Friedenberg).

''The Frugal Repast'' is filled with allusions to well-established facts about the real-life art world figures. The couples' cut-out newspaper letters on the ransom note inspire Picasso's collages. Toklas is obsessed with food and talks about her famous brownies. But this play avoids the smugness of less successful works that seem to require a special key to unlock a secret meaning.

The convivial atmosphere of ''The Frugal Repast'' owes a great deal to the sympathetic portrayals of the characters. Stein is a compassionate and charitable woman, Apollinaire sympathizes with the downtrodden and Picasso is amiably foolish. Even Vollard comes off as a man not totally without a heart. While the multi-talented Todd and Luebbe juggle, balance and act their way into the audience's collective heart.

Ray Becht has created an appropriately abstract set that, with the help of Mathew McCarthy's lighting and Graham Johnson's lighthearted sound design, has a somewhat surreal feel (let's not forget that it was Surrealism which would engulf the Parisian art world in the following decade). The set also makes a clear demarcation between the dreamy world of the aerialists and the real world of Vollard's elite circle.

Plays about ideas are always in danger of becoming lifeless, heavy and boring. But ''The Frugal Repast'' blithely avoids all these snares, remaining as light and tasty as a fresh croissant.

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