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Theatre in Review: The Collaboration (Manhattan Theatre Club/Samuel J. Friedman Theatre)

Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

With The Collaboration and the Neil Diamond musical A Beautiful Noise opening on Broadway two weeks apart, Anthony McCarten transfers his prodigious biographical endeavors from screen to stage. Peter Morgan can have the Windsors; McCarten wants everyone else. Beginning with the Oscar-bait epics Darkest Hour (Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill) and The Theory of Everything (Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Hawking), he has become the most indefatigable of chroniclers.

McCarten specializes in slick, superficial, Vanity Fair-style portraits that go down easily even as they sometimes beggar belief: Bohemian Rhapsody has one of the more ridiculous wrap-ups in recent years, in which the closeted, self-destructive Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) accepts his homosexuality, picks up a life partner, and comes out to his parents while racing in a limo to his legendary Wembley Stadium concert. The Two Popes (Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Benedict and Francis) converts a profound theological tussle into a genial buddy comedy featuring the cuddliest pontiffs you've ever seen. I haven't seen the recently released Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, starring Naomi Ackie; frankly, who has time to keep up?

The Collaboration expands on the compare-and-contrast method of The Two Popes, focusing on Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, who, together, produced more than four dozen paintings during a controversial, but lucrative, mid-1980s partnership. McCarten portrays it as a shotgun marriage engineered by Bruno Bischofberger, the Swiss art dealer, looking to maximize his investment in both men. The pairing of art-world bad boys might seem to promise some dramatic fireworks, or at least some gossipy fun, but this vehicle lacks a dramatic motor. The Collaboration is a high-concept pitch in search of a rationale, a drama without a reason for being.

The first act is filled with remarkably bald exposition. "You need to give us something new, Andy. I keep telling you," Bruno says. "My reputation is in tatters," Warhol frets. "Museums won't take my works anymore, my prices are falling, they say I've ruined art for everybody." Explaining his angst, he adds, "I've never been the same since [Valerie Solanas] shot me. Crazy bitch. No wonder I don't let people get close to me. They shoot you. With guns." Bruno, dabbling in amateur psychology, offers this diagnosis: "You don't know how to return love."

Just in case we weren't paying attention, Bruno tells Basquiat that Warhol is "afraid...that you're overtaking him...that he's going out of fashion...while he just goes to parties...your prices going up, his going down, that frightens him. And he's getting old, and he got shot and he's afraid of germs and he still gets acne, at his age." Get it? Got it? Good!

Armed with these nuggets of information, we spend the rest of the act watching the men wrangle over an unseen canvas depicting the General Electric logo with some artistic flourishes appended. McCarten tries hard to make comedy out of their different temperaments -- Warhol's fastidious, fussbudget ways versus Basquiat's slovenly housekeeping and fondness for weed. (Really, they're a downtown Felix Unger and Oscar Madison.) To be sure, it's a promising clash of sensibilities: Warhol, deathly afraid of returning to painting after years of delegating brushwork to assistants, is detached and cerebral; Basquiat is instinctive, grinding out masterpieces in an afternoon and living as if tomorrow doesn't exist. But nothing ignites: In Red, about Mark Rothko, playwright John Logan found high-tension drama in the painstaking, psychologically costive, creation of an Abstract Expressionist painting. Watching Warhol and Basquiat bicker over the details of colors and brushstrokes is about as engaging as watching a canvas dry.

The second act makes a bold lunge for melodrama, bringing onstage Maya, one of Basquiat's girlfriends, who is flat broke and needs money for an abortion, pronto. (Amusingly, she arrives via limousine -- oh, those bohemians!) Then Basquiat is profoundly panicked by the police assault on his friend Michael Stewart, a Black street artist. This incident forces a predictable round of soul-baring: Basquiat, not unreasonably, expresses his terror of ending up a police statistic; surrendering to magical thinking, he frantically works on a canvas, convinced that it can keep his friend alive. (A syringe, rather ostentatiously planted at the top of the act, is the tipoff to where his story is going.) Warhol, frustrated in his attempts at filming Basquiat, dwells weepily on his lifelong self-loathing and "mangled childhood," characterizing himself as "Ondrej Warhola, the despised little runt from steel town America," lamenting, "I started one real love affair in my life, one, back in the 1950's...with my television set." He might be a great painter, but his insights are pure pulp fiction.

If the director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, can't generate any dramatic momentum out of this get-together, at least he has a gifted pair of stars. Paul Bettany's physically tense, rail-thin, perpetually offended Warhol is a Houdini trying to escape his own skin; his adenoidal while turns a simple request for a pencil into a cri de coeur. He amuses when, responding to a question about what he did the previous night, he stums Basquiat with a chronicle that includes Yoko Ono, Steve Jobs, Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Jack Nicholson, and Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, adding as a capper some prime dish about Marilyn Monroe. He is equally effective when removing his shirt, nervously exposing the scars from the Solanas incident. As Basquiat, Jeremy Pope underplays skillfully, acting assure quiet provocateur until his big breakdown scene, which reverberates with a long-suppressed terror and fury.

Krysta Rodriguez adds some lively notes of her own as Maya, filling in a shocked Warhol on some of the seamy details of life with Basquiat. Erik Jensen manfully does the heavy expositional lifting as Bruno. Kwei-Armah also provides some clever staging moments, including a bit with a refrigerator stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Apparently, Basquiat didn't trust banks.)

Anna Fleischle's set quickly converts into various locations, although, sadly, we don't get any sense of the tacky, slivery glitter of Warhol's Factory. Still, Fleischle's costumes have a documentary authenticity and wig designers Karicean "Karen" Dick and Carol Robinson faithfully recreate Warhol's gray mop and Basquiat's all-directions Afro. Duncan McLean's projections vividly recall the gritty streets and seedy grind houses of '80s-era New York. (I don't know what to make of the intermission footage of Bettany and Pope, in character, fooling around on roller skates; it seems utterly in contradiction to what happens onstage.) Ben Stanton's lighting is sensitive to each scene's time of day. Emma Laxton's kicky sound design brings the DJ Vicky Casis onstage before each act, armed with a playlist that includes Earth, Wind & Fire's "Let's Groove," Chaka Khan's "I Feel for You," and Aretha Franklin's "Freeway of Love," among others.

Overall, however, it's an evening of great artists and banal insights. Warhol knew how to turn everyday objects, like the Campbell's Soup can, into objects of fascination. McCarten turns his enigmatic, captivating subjects into clich├ęs. The Collaboration is soon to be a film, a medium in which the playwright is apparently more comfortable; surely it will be livelier than this pallid exercise. --David Barbour

(11 January 2023)

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