The wig gives it away, otherwise we’d be hard-pressed to immediately – or even slowly – recognize Paul Bettany’s fast-talking, extroverted and inquisitive artist character in Anthony McCarten’s The Collaboration as that historic icon of cryptic, mumbled monosyllables Andy Warhol.
Unfortunately, Bettany isn’t the only thing that feels smudged in this ’80s-set paint-by-numbers and highly fictionalized dual bio-play about Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, opening tonight in a Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Broadway.
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and inspired by the real life 1984 painting collaboration of the aging (at least in terms of artistic relevance) Warhol and the soaring Basquiat – a project presented so much more convincingly and movingly in the 1996 film Basquiat, starring Jeffrey Wright and, in the definitive performance of Warhol, David Bowie, who haunts this play like a shadow – The Collaboration is an oddly lifeless endeavor, a failure in capturing even a moment of simple artistic inspiration much less the ignition of of collaborative genius.
McCarten, who also currently is represented on Broadway as the book writer of Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical – a work that betrays similar history-via-Wikipedia inclinations – reduces two of the greatest, most artistically influential and culturally impactful artists of the late 20th Century into stick figures spouting their respective viewpoints of artistic merit, art’s worth, art’s role in society, art as personal commitment, art versus commerce, photography versus painting, beauty, fame, heroin and ambition. So many subjects, so few credible or original thoughts.
“I broke down a wall between business and art,” says Bettany as Warhol, in what passes for small talk in The Collaboration. “All artists with wit should be listened to,” says Basquiat, played by the usually terrific Jeremy Pope as a collection of twitches and far-off gazes and sing-song cadences that suggest a cartoon version of the historical Basquiat. “All gloomy bastards should be clubbed to death.”
The play’s first act – in which art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jensen) arm-twists the two antagonistic, reluctant artists to collaborate for the sake of posterity, careerism and loads of money – mostly finds Warhol and Basquiat in Warhol’s studio circling one another like boxers waiting to land the first punch.
Never mind that Bischofberger’s actual role in the historic meet-up was considerably less significant, or that the antagonism expressed by the two artists feels more like dramaturgical set-up for the de rigueur reconciliation in Act II. That kind of fictionalizing is always acceptable if it contributes momentum or some sort of spiritual truth to a play. Here, it does neither. (Perhaps Kwei-Armah and McCarten will have better luck with the film adaptation they have in the works).
The second act picks up many months later, when Warhol and Basquiat are nearing the completion of their multi-piece collaboration, and have developed a genuine affection for one another. The old man worries about the younger man’s heroin use (even while playing it off – “You’re not my first junkie” – while Basquiat encourages something close to self-acceptance in the scarred Warhol who mentions frequently (too frequently, to be dramatically credible) the life-altering shooting by Valerie Solanas. (Here again, McCarten affords his Warhol a self-revelatory candor that seems at odds with the historical figure. The art loft settings, designed by Anna Fleischle, who also did the era-appropriate costumes, lend the production some much needed authenticity).
Ultimately, the two artists make some sort of peace with their opposing worldviews and artistic standpoints – though a Second Act freak-out in which Basquiat bemoans the death of a friend as some sort of long-distance voodoo murder by Warhol’s camera is absurd. Little assistance is Krysta Rodriguez as one of Basquiat’s girlfriends, all anger, disappointment, longing and co-dependence.
McCarten, as evidenced by this play, his book for the Neil Diamond musical and his script for the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody has a knack for finding the human beneath the celebrity, but just as often often whittles away the bumps and sharp spots that made them worth our attention in the first place. At least jukebox musicals can exploit familiar tunes to resurrect life in ways that no fright wig or cartoon gesticulating can. The Collaboration, when all is painted and done, is a jukebox musical without the music.