A play about Andy Warhol & Jean-Michel Basquiat’s collaboration starring Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope.
By: Patrick Christiano
January 30, 2023: Set in 1984 New York City and based on a real-life collaboration between artists, Andy Warhol and Jean-Michael Basquiat, The Collaboration, covers a two- year period when the men essentially worked together to create 16 works for an exhibition that would become the talk of the town. At 58 years old, Warhol’s star was dimming, and Basquiat was the rising young star of the modern art scene, a sensation at 27 for his graffiti inspired works. The play, directed by Kwei-Armah, comes to Manhattan’s Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre from London’s West End with the two stars, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope, reprising their roles. They will also be seen in the upcoming film.
As you enter the Friedman Theater you hear loud disco music from the 1980’s spun by a spirited DJ, who beautifully captures the hot dance sound of Studio 54’s heyday. The play, a fictitious re-imagining of what might have happened when these two titans of the modern art scene agreed to work together, is by Anthony McCarten, who wrote the scripts for the film “Bohemian Rhapsody” (about the rock band Queen) and “The Two Popes,” (about a meeting between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis). He also wrote the current Broadway musical “A Beautiful Noise” (about pop icon Neil Diamond) and has an upcoming musical about Whitney Houston in the works. McCarten apparently harbors a fascination for iconic characters, and he likes to tinker with the actual chronology of events for dramatic effect. Here we learn of a fatal beating of Basquiat’s artist friend Michael Stewart by the police when he is caught trying to emulate Basquiat by spraying graffiti on the subway walls. The event happened before the men collaborated, but in McCarten’s tale the tragedy will be a pivotal part of the storyline in Act II.
In the first act, the artists are brought together by Warhol’s Swiss art dealer Bruno, played by Erik Jensen, but first he must sell them on the idea. From there the act appears to be envisioned as a boxing match between the two artists, a concept that was drawn from the actual poster for the 1985 exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in SoHo. The physical staging and the banter between the two peers seem to bear this out, and the act unfolds like a sparring contest between Warhol, who insists art is only a business, and Basquiat, the young graffiti artist.
Basquiat comes out swinging challenging Warhol to paint with a brush. Supposedly, since his silk screens became a pop phenomenon, Warhol abandoned painting and has not picked up a brush for over 20 years. Warhol comes across like a weirdo voyeur, who surrounds himself with odd characters, sells mass-produced commercial images and is fixated with documenting everything on film. Basquiat is a brash young graffiti artist of Caribbean descent rebelling against the establishment with colorful collages of garish images married with written comments. The play, an attempt to imagine what these men might have been like behind their public personas, captures only certain qualities the men probably possessed. Characteristics that were part of their well-known images.
The second act is two years later when their collaboration is winding down to a conclusion. Warhol is obsessively attempting to video Basquiat working, asking him questions, and documenting his process despite Basquiat’s annoyance with him doing so. However, much of the story comes by way of Basquiat’s pregnant ex-girlfriend, Maya, played by Krysta Rodriguez. She comes to his studio looking for money for an abortion, but Basquiat, who was supposed to meet her is not home. Alone with Warhol, Maya fills us in on many details about Basquiat and even shows Warhol where Basquiat keeps hundreds of thousands of dollars stuffed in the refrigerator.
Also, it is here in the second act that the playwright inserts the brutal police beating that killed Basquiat’s friend, Michael Stewart. Earlier in the play Basquiat had shared his belief with Warhol that “Paintings can have supernatural power if you imbue them with them,” he says. “They’re like… incantations. It’s a ritual, you know. Ancient ritual.” When his friend dies, he blames Warhol for Stewart’s death, because Warhol’s filming of him working had destroyed the power his art had to save his friend’s life.
McCarten’s fictionalize look at two art world icons becomes little more than a tedious exercise, an excuse to share a few salacious details, maybe true, maybe not, about the artists with little, if any, emotional depth except for the contrivances. Instead of conflicts we get debates, which is inherent in the writing, but it is also compounded by the acting.
The film and television star Paul Bettany certainly looks the part in his white fright wig, but he does very little. His portrayal of Warhol is a postured cliché devoid of any emotional depth. He captures Warhol’s flat midwestern accent and guarded way of expressing himself leaning heavily on these qualities, but there is never a moment when he reveals anything more about the character. As a result, Jeremy Pope, who does some interesting work capturing beautifully the innocence of the young man, has little to play off and ultimately over acts in a performance that does not feel completely organic despite his smart choices.
Unfortunately and ironically, the best part of the evening is before the play begins and during intermission when the spirited DJ captures the disco sounds of Studio 54’s heyday.
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th Street, NYC
Extended Through February 11, 2023
Photography: Jeremy Daniel