New Zealand born, British playwright Anthony McCarten has had a successful career writing films and plays about real people. Among his acclaimed films are The Theory of Everything (Stephen Hawking), Darkest Hour (Winston Churchill) The Two Popes (Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis) and Bohemian Rhapsody (Freddie Mercury), winning Oscars for Eddie Redmayne, Gary Oldman, and Rami Malek in three of these movies and four nominations for himself. Recently opened is his new biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna to Dance with Somebody.
His London stage play, The Collaboration, has just arrived from London with its original stars, British actor Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol, and American actor Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat from The Young Vic Theatre production. Warhol and Basquiat famously worked together on a series of 16 paintings from 1984-85 for a show that was jointly curated by gallery owners Tony Shafrazi and Bruno Bischofberger who had introduced them. The play is the second part of a theater work called the “Worship Trilogy” which includes the play version of The Two Popes and the as yet unproduced Wednesday at Warren’s, Friday at Bill’s about the meetings between billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates which led to the establishment of The Giving Pledge.
While Bettany and Pope are each very convincing as Warhol and Basquiat since they are made up to look exactly like they did in life, they seem to be in two different plays, using different acting styles. The other problem with The Collaboration is that it feels very superficial, like a laundry list of items for them to discuss, while at least several of the dramatic devices are taken out of context or are relocated in chronology. It is certainly a fascinating premise: an older famous and fabulously successful artist whose star is fading and a younger rising star who has taken the art world by storm and seems to be unstoppable, brought together by their shared dealer.
The first act of the play which mainly takes place in Warhol’s studio at 680 Broadway at 3rd Street/Great Jones Street brings the two artists together in 1984 to attempt their collaboration which in the play both men fight against beginning. The second act takes place entirely in Basquiat’s studio at 57 Great Jones Street (which the play does not reveal was a building owned by Warhol) 18 months later as the men are completing their 16th and last canvas for their joint show. In this basically two-character play, the artists discuss their philosophies of art, feelings about money and fame, and ultimately death: Warhol is still getting over his near death experience in 1968 when he was shot by activist Valerie Solanus which still gives him pain, while Basquiat is coping with the beating and death of his fellow graffiti artist Michael Stewart which takes place in the last scene of the play.
Not only do the men remain opposites throughout, they seem to clash on almost everything: spending money, religious beliefs, reasons for painting, spirituality, sexuality, drinking and drug-taking, music, race, etc. We are told that Warhol’s life was dedicated to relieving his loneliness and that he had stopped painting for 25 years when he ceased being Andrew Warhola, Jr. of Pittsburgh and became Andy Warhol of New York. McCarten’s Basquiat tells us that he paints in order to eat and that it is one of the few things that a racist society allows a rebellious Black man to do. The best line in the play is said by Basquiat, but is in fact attributed to critic and educator Dr. Cesar A. Cruz in 2012, 25 years after the deaths of both men: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.”
Bettany’s Warhol is fastidious, neat-conscious, fussy, sarcastic, and feeling the throes of his waning fame. Pope’s Basquiat is hyped up, rash, street wise, direct, and will put up with no pretense or lies but cuts to the quick. Under the direction of Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of The Young Vic Theatre who also piloted the two actors in London, together they are like oil and water. It is difficult to believe in their collaboration as they seem to bristle at each other’s pronouncements as well as their ways of life and working methods.
The play also includes two minor characters, American replacements to the British production: Erik Jensen plays Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger who introduces the two men and appears to play the role of conciliator. In The Collaboration, he lies to both in order to bring them together. Krysta Rodriguez is underutilized as Basquiat’s latest ex-girlfriend who comes to get money for her rent and an abortion and later delivers the news that their friend Michael Stewart has died of his injuries sustained at the hands of the police who were arresting him for spray painting a subway station. Both characters seem to be devices to convey information.
Anna Fleischle’s settings for the two artists’ studios could not be more different, with Warhol’s as minimalist as possible, and Basquiat as messy as a work space can be without keeping it from being used for its purpose. Both are decorated with art works which very much suggest their styles. Bruno’s unspecified premise in the opening scene is a very believable recreation of modern art galleries at the time of the play and now with its high white walls and few paintings. Screens on the side walls are covered with Duncan McLean’s projections which depict Manhattan in the 1980’s as well as Warhol’s video of Basquiat working as well as the two men exercising (which is factually correct.) Fleischle’s costumes have the lived in look of clothes artists might actually wear while Bruno is dressed in the business suit of a Madison Avenue gallery owner, and Maya in contemporary sportswear.
The costumes are greatly enhanced by the realistic wig designs by Karicean “Karen” Dick & Carol Robinson which bring the historic characters to life. Ben Stanton’s lighting is generally suffused with the daylight that artists’ studios need but also has subtle gradations as time passes. While the sound design by Emma Laxton and the songs by DJ Vicky Casis open the play with extremely loud music for the pre-show concert, Ayanna Witter-Johnson is responsible for the more subdued music between the scenes.
Andrew McCarten’s The Collaboration is based on actual events in the lives of both Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat though how accurate it is will have to be decided by the biographers. Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope give terrific performances though do not really connect as though they are in the same play. They can also only be as good as the material allows. McCarten’s play is not entirely convincing although it is certainly effective as an entertainment. It is ambitious in telling an unknown story but not strictly accurate to the known facts. Modern art lovers will want to see the play regardless of its shortcomings. Please note that “the Basquiat artwork appearing in this production is not meant to be interpreted as actual or legitimate Basquiat artwork.” The same is not said of the Warhol paintings that decorate his studio in the first act set, like the Campbell soup and Marilyn Monroe prints that are unmistakably meant to be Warhols.
The Collaboration (extended through February 5, 2023)
Manhattan Theatre Club and The Young Vic Theatre
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit http://www.ManhattanTheatreclub.com
Running time: two hours and ten minutes including one intermission