Reviews

The Collaboration ***

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 9, 2023: Plays about the creative process of artists, regardless of their field—from the visual to the performing arts to literature—are nothing new; many, like Anthony McCarten’s The Collaboration, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre after a run at London’s Young Vic Theatre, focus on famous exemplars. When the artists are also well known for their personal lives, the potential for audience interest is increased, a curiosity that expands exponentially when rival real-life artists are involved. This applies to The Collaboration, which pits two renowned, American, avant-garde artists, Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany, “WandaVision”) and Jean Michel-Basquiat (Jeremy Pope, Choir Boys), against each other.

Paul Bettany & Jeremy Pope.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 9, 2023: Plays about the creative process of artists, regardless of their field—from the visual to the performing arts to literature—are nothing new; many, like Anthony McCarten’s The Collaboration, now at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre after a run at London’s Young Vic Theatre, focus on famous exemplars. When the artists are also well known for their personal lives, the potential for audience interest is increased, a curiosity that expands exponentially when rival real-life artists are involved. This applies to The Collaboration, which pits two renowned, American, avant-garde artists, Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany, “WandaVision”) and Jean Michel-Basquiat (Jeremy Pope, Choir Boys), against each other. 

Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany.

McCarten, known for films and/or plays about such figures as Freddie Mercury, Winston Churchill, Popes Benedict and Francis, Neil Diamond (the current Broadway musical A Beautiful Noise),and Whitney Houston (forthcoming), found his inspiration in the 1983-1984 development of an exhibition cooked up by Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jensen, Disgraced). For it, Bischofberger convinced Warhol and Basquiat to collaboratively create, over a two-year stretch, a series of 16 works, almost as if they were being asked to slug it out like boxers, a concept actually emphasized in the exhibition’s ads. 

These men were separated as much by age (thirty years) as artistic vision. Warhol was a household name known as much for his flamboyant, well-publicized lifestyle (he had even been shot in the torso by one of his female followers) as for his Pop Art, silk-screen images of things like Campbell’s Soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. For all his notoriety and even homosexuality, he was, as presented in The Collaboration, far more socially constrained—no drugs, for example—than the younger Basquiat, of Cuban and Haitian parentage. He was far the freer spirit when it came to sex, drugs, and an artistic style stemming from his youthful experience with graffiti. 

Jeremy Pope

In the play, Warhol, who had abandoned painting many years before for the Pop Art approach that made him rich, finds himself confronted by this wildly unconventional, highly critical young rival, who is gaining enormous attention for his path-breaking Neo-Expressionist work. As you might imagine, this is a play in which these two men, so different in backgrounds, personalities, and artistry, begin their collaboration by a clash of visions and temperaments, only to go through the expected emotional roller coaster ride of conflicts and resolutions that culminates in their mutual affection and accomplishment. 

Kwame Kwei-Armah repeats the lively direction he provided for the London run, keeping the action as physical as possible by having the actors mime their painting on an imaginary canvas (except for a real one laid on the floor late in the play). It is, however, a weak substitute for actual dramatic conflict (as opposed to arguing). Mr. Kwei-Armah also deploys lots of video projections (by Duncan McLean) on dedicated areas of Anna Fleischle’s mostly white studio settings, tastefully lit by Ben Stanton, and topped by a Mondrian-style panel. The videos are inspired by Warhol’s obsession, despite Basquiat’s displeasure, with filming the younger artist’s work while interviewing him. Warhol, the insecure artist as voyeur, is engrossed in documenting Basquiat, the artist as practitioner, for what we view as faux documentary footage (that keeps looping during the intermission as pop music from the 80s is blasted by a DJ) showing the men enjoying themselves—even exercising with weights—while making art. 

Krysta Rodriguez

The play has its share of sturm und drang, especially toward the end when the artists engage in an aria-like confrontation that’s the equivalent of the 11 o’clock number in a Broadway musical; however, for much of its two hours it marks time with discussions and debates over each man’s artistic theories and relationship to the commercialization of their work. With so much reliance on theoretical point and counterpoint, no matter how passionately expressed, the tension is usually more cerebral than otherwise. 

When things heat up dramaturgically, it’s usually because of external events, like when a girlfriend of Basquiat’s named Maya (Krysta Rodriguez, Into the Woods) bursts in during his absence to demand money for an abortion, or when we learn of a fatal beating by the police of Basquiat’s artist friend Michael Stewart—which actually happened before the play’s events—when caught spraying subway graffiti. The latter incident incites a weird development when Basquiat, believing his art has the power to save his friend’s life, blames Warhol’s filming for Stewart’s death.

Erik Jensen

The British Mr. Bettany, bespectacled and narrow as an arrow, delivers his lines in a semblance of Warhol’s flat Midwestern whine. His head thatched with Warhol’s familiar blonde fright wig, he looks, as dressed by Ms. Fleischle in tight black shirt and faded jeans, very much the boney artist; at one point, he wears a white motorcycle jacket that gets a laugh when he turns around, revealing Basquiat’s portrait emblazoned on its back. Mr. Pope, his own wig replicating Basquiat’s jungle of erratic dreadlocks (the wigs are by Karicean “Karen” Dick and Carol Robinson), and his clothes artlessly casual, captures the grungy street persona the artist—actually from a well-off background—cultivated. But for all the actors’ enthusiastic histrionics, the script rarely seems more than a series of contrivances more artfully artificial than artistically authentic. 

There’s a definite attraction in seeing these iconic figures in their private moments, however distorted for theatrical presentation. I was particularly intrigued to see Warhol, for all his tics and psychological hang-ups, shown as the more conservative and, in his idiosyncratic way, down to earth of the pair. Like many outside the art world proper, I never understood the enormous success of his art, although over the years I’ve come to appreciate its originality and impact. Audiences will find his explanation of it in the play educationally valuable. 

Paul Bettany

I still don’t get or love Basquiat’s work, but, as an ironic coda to the play makes clear, people are willing to pay nearly $100 million for one of his rebellious paintings. That’s when I realized I’m just a poor schnook who should keep his mouth shut about such contributions to modern art.

The Collaboration
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 W. 47th Street, NYC
Through February 5, 2023
Photography: Jeremy Daniel

Krysta Rodriguez and Jeremy Pope.