“We’re very different,” Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany) says to Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope) when they first meet to collaborate on making a painting. “You’re all spontaneous and wild, and so deep and mystical..while I’m still a commercial illustrator really, a photographer, obsessed with the surface of things…”
Their differences are surely what helped make the collaboration of these two art stars so intriguing to so many in 1984 – one white, wan Pop Artist, 56, famous for decades; the other Black, boisterous neo-Expressionist, 25, a brand new art world darling. It also helps make “The Collaboration,” a play by Anthony McCarten opening tonight on Broadway, such a showcase for the memorable performances by two formidable actors, who go beyond simple impersonation.
But did the playwright need to make the characters spell out their differences so explicitly? Is that the way these two visual artists would actually speak to one another? Why do so many of the supposed aperçus about art in this play sound canned, at best the kind of practiced lines that art stars say to journalists to sound outrageous? These are the sort of questions that arise here and there during “The Collaboration,” which has a script that can feel surprisingly clunky, in both moments of exposition and in the overall plot, which is largely predictable, even as the actors somehow redeem it.
Warhol and Basquiat begin neither liking nor trusting one another. Before they meet, Warhol thinks Basquiat’s art is “ugly and angry and…kinda violent,” and he’s envious of how quickly the younger painter completes them. Basquiat thinks Warhol is “old hat…All that fag silk screen stuff?”
This doesn’t deter their mutual art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jensen), who has decided that such a merger of brands would be good for all of them. He convinces the two to collaborate with one another by lying to them, telling them that each is eager to work with the other, and by hyping the results: Their paintings together, he tells them, will be “the greatest exhibition ever in the history of art.”
Over the two hours of the play – surprise! – Warhol and Basquiat grow to trust one another, even love one another. At the end, Warhol and Basquiat have become friends, and we see projections of the paintings that they did together, accompanied by a voice-over from an auctioneer indicating that one sold for ninety-eight million dollars.
Bettany and Pope work through their characters’ conflicts and conciliation with charisma, humor, pathos and grace. But this arc struck me as of dubious accuracy, and I was reminded how annoying art world hype can be, especially about Warhol, whose disco-era celebrity virtually erased from the public mind his achievements as a visual artist. The Warhol-Basquiat paintings may make a lot of money these days at auction (although not as much as some of their individual artwork) but there are some solid indications that those collaborative pieces are unlikely to wind up looming large in the history of art. The art critic Vivien Raynor, reviewing their exhibition at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985, dismissed the work, writing: “Warhol, one of Pop’s pops, paints, say, General Electric’s logo, a New York Post headline or his own image of dentures; his 25-year-old protege adds to or subtracts from it with his more or less expressionistic imagery. The 16 results – all ”Untitleds,’ of course – are large, bright, messy, full of private jokes and inconclusive.”
McCarten, the screenwriter of such acclaimed film biographies as “The Theory of Everything,“ “The Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” who made his Broadway debut earlier this month as the librettist for “A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical,” considers “The Collaboration” the middle play in his planned trilogy dramatizing real-life unlikely pairings. The first was “The Pope” about the relationship between Benedict XVI and his successor Pope Francis (which became the movie “The Two Popes,” starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce); the last will be “Wednesday At Warrens Friday At Bills,” about the relationship between Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. The series is an interesting idea, and I enjoyed “The Two Popes.” But the implicit promise of a debate of ideas as well as a clash of personalities may be a more natural fit for, say, two highly educated men who speak multiple languages and daily discuss, debate and decree matters of worldwide theological and political significance, than for two men who spend their day making images.
Nevertheless, “The Collaboration” pulls off several scenes of airy discussions about art that the actors help to ground. Here are two, one in which Basquiat answers Warhol’s question about why he makes art (“to eat?…I don’t know. It’s the one thing I can get away with.. They don’t let someone like me get away with much”), and the other in which Warhol explains why he likes to reproduce corporate logos: “I’m trying to make art that forces you to ignore it the same way we’re ignoring life.”
(Notice Pope’s little skip when he’s painting, and his expression when he imitates someone reacting to contemporary art. Notice how Bettany effects Warhol’s infamous flat affect, but makes it vital.)
In both these scenes – as in most of the scenes that take place with the two men working together in either Warhol’s studio at Union Square or Basquiat’s studio/loft apartment in the East Village — they are supposedly making art, but it comes off as stage business while they focus on their discussion. This is in sharp contrast to a play like John Logan’s “Red.”, which, like “The Collaboration, was a play about an American artist that originated in England, and had a run on Broadway in 2011. In it, Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko didn’t seem just to debate art with his fictional assistant (portrayed by Eddie Redmayne making his Broadway debut); they seemed to make art in front of us. It says something that the design team of “The Collaboration” seems to pay at least as much attention to the music as to the art work. Yes, there is a Marilyn on the wall, but the Warhol and Basquiat collaborations (such as the one at the bottom of this page) are only flashed briefly at the beginning and at the end, while a dj is on stage playing loud club hits from the 1980s both before the play and during intermission.
The truth is, “The Collaboration” comes more alive the further it travels from questions of art, and the more it glimpses the peculiar lives of these particular men, both of whom would die not long after their two-year collaboration, within eighteen months of one another.
There’s a long monologue when Andy tells Jean about how he spent his evening – at Yoko’s for little Sean Lennon’s birthday where Steve Job was setting up an Apple McIntosh for him (remember, this is 1984), and then onto Mick and Jerry’s and then Princess Gloria von Turn unt Taxis, whose husband once had sex with Marilyn Monroe — each visit punctuated with some gossip, and how much the cab ride cost – which, to Warhol aficionados, is a tip-off that this comes straight out of Andy Warhol’s published diaries (since they began after his accountant told him to keep a record of all his expenses.)
The play includes a fourth character, Maya (the always splendid Krysta Rodriguez), who we see in only a few scenes – one in which she’s dancing wildly and wordlessly with Jean as his girlfriend, and later, no longer his girlfriend, when she rushes into Jean’s loft, but only Andy is there, and she tells him she desperately needs cash for an abortion; how that scene resolves itself says everything you need to know (more than you want to know) about the strangeness of the downtown art scene in the 1980s.
The most arresting scene occurs after we learn that New York City Transit Police officers have beaten Jean-Michel’s friend Michael Stewart into a coma for writing graffiti in a subway station. As in some of the other moments in the play based on historical fact, the timeline is switched around, the incident streamlined. But it’s the one time when the stakes have become high, Jean-Michel loses his pose, Andy listens, and art matters.
MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre through January 29, 2023. Extended to February 11
Running time: Two hours including one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets: $84 to $298
Written by Anthony McCarten
Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah
Set and costume design by Anna Fleischle, lighting design by Ben Stanton, sound design by Emma Laxton, projection design by Duncan McLean, original music by Ayanna Witter-Johnson
Cast: Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol, Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Krysta Rodriguez as Maya, and Erik Jensen as Bruno Bischofberger