Harold Todd and Dawn Luebbe in The Frugal Repast
(© Kim T. Sharp)
Harold Todd and Dawn Luebbe in The Frugal Repast
(© Kim T. Sharp)
"If those women aren't your typical bourgeois housewives, I don't know who they are," a character says in Ron Hirsen's new one-act, The Frugal Repast, now at the Abingdon Theatre Company. The pair of passers-by prompting the observation happen to be the famous Paris-based lovers Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, so you immediately understand the sly sense of humor the playwright exhibits in his entertaining but brief piece about how tricky it is to assign a value to art.

At that moment, Stein (Lizbeth Mackay) and Toklas (Julie Boyd) are on their way to one of their frequent dinners with visionary art dealer Ambroise Vollard (David Wohl) and poet/art critic Guillaume Apollinaire (Frank Liotti). They'll become a foursome whose number is often enlarged by a volatile Pablo Picasso (Roberto DeFelice) and whichever nubile young woman he's dating at the moment (all of the bubble-headed nymphs are played by the chameleon-like Kathleen McElfresh).

Hirsen takes his title from what is usually considered Picasso's first or second etching. An image now familiar to modern-art lovers, it shows two elongated figures seated desolately at a table. Hirsen is so intrigued by these two downers that he gives the emaciated figures three dimensions. He even has their recognizable poses duplicated, although as portrayed by athletic Harold Todd and tall-drink-of-water Dawn Luebbe, they seem less malnourished than in the etching.

They're here as a couple who have seen Picasso's etched interpretation of them and decide they're due recompense for having had their faces appropriated. Since the pair are supposedly accomplished aerial artists, they use local high wires to enter Vollard's Rue Lafitte gallery and remove the offending etching -- only to realize they'll have to remove all subsequent replacements. Their intention is to use the lifted goods for raising funds with which they'll cure their darling but ill son (Kyrian Friedenberg).

Hirsen may want to discuss the value of art as compared to the value of a life, but there's not much of an argument here, especially considering his depiction of Stein, Toklas, Vollard, and Apollinaire as gabby dilettantes. Most of the time they're shown polishing off generous repasts, with well-known kitchen maven Toklas remarking on secret ingredients like cardamom. Their table talk is often amusing, but Hirsen sees to it that the privileged characters sound petty next to the poorer figures he's clearly enlisted from the lean, ethereal lower-class populace of Picasso's Blue and Rose Periods.

Nevertheless, what could come off simply as socialist propaganda -- there is some prominent talk about all art belonging to all the people -- is cheered up by director Joe Grifasi and set designer Ray Recht, who have given the production the look of a lively one-ring circus. Indeed, Todd and Luebbe show off their juggling skills not just in the circus-like prologue, but throughout the show.

As for the remainder of the cast, DeFelice is funny in Picasso's hairdo. Charming, tousled-haired Friedenberg plays the boy as if he were The Little Prince. MacKay is attenuated, whereas we all know Stein was squat as a loaf of bread, while Boyd is much prettier than brownie-baking Alice Toklas. Lastly, Wohl is a jolly Vollard, while not looking that much like the Vollard who showed up on canvases in the Metropolitan Museum's recent "Cezanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Arts" exhibit.

Sometimes writers unconsciously tip the tenor of their work by the titles they choose. In addition to conjuring Picasso's etching, Hirsen has signaled his own fairly accurate assessment of the piece. Had he found more to say about Stein and her compatriots or delved deeper into the circus family, he might have created a more nutritious theatrical meal instead of a tantalizing appetizer.