Jean-Michel Basquiat catapulted to fame during the 1980s with his carnal, colorful paintings. Since then, contradiction has been his most loyal fan. He’s been labeled genius and absurd. He grew to global stardom, but lived as a recluse. He championed anti-capitalist rebellion, but his paintings are some of the most expensive ever sold. Debates about the cost of notoriety and the power of money are so bound with Basquiat’s legacy, you almost forget how short his life was. The artist was only 27 when he died from a heroin overdose, the age I turn next year. And while neither the Whitney Museum nor Gagosian Gallery are knocking down my door, I relate to the paralyzing shock and pressing weight of early success in one’s career. That’s why I know just how important it is to have a mentor and a friend. Enter, Andy Warhol.
Anthony McCarten’s illustrative new play, “The Collaboration” introduces us to these two artistic mega minds in the late 20th century when they agreed to work together on a series of paintings. The production — a direct transfer from the Young Vic Theatre in London’s West End — arrives at Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre at a time when the theater industry is ripe with conversations about the true meaning of art: to entertain? To disturb? The play sets itself on this debate and spends an overwhelming amount of time regurgitating each man’s stance. Basquiat insists art must have a purpose and stand up to the establishment. Warhol insists that “ignorable art” is the most thrilling, “art that…that forces you…to ignore it…the same way we’re ignoring life.” McCarten hammers both positions — neither of which is particularly revelatory or original — into the ground for 135 droning minutes.
In fact, Act 1 positions the artists’ collaboration more like a competition. Bruno Bischofberger (an eager Erik Jensen), the Swiss art dealer the two share, is the force advocating for their public partnership but markets the event like a boxing match to name the world’s greatest painter. Mind you, Warhol is an old head who “[hasn’t] painted by hand in 25 years.” Now a filmmaker, a camera replaces his brush and real life replaces a blank canvas. The old guy has been in the game a while now and cautions Basquiat against the illusion of invincibility, “We’re not painters, we’re brands. … Just watch the language change, Jean. People will have to ‘have you’ suddenly. … You’ll be invisible, a brand. You’ll finally, triumphantly, cease to exist.”
Jeremy Pope and Paul Bettany fall in perfect step with the behavioral patterns and nervous tics of Basquiat and Warhol, painting believable portraits of their peculiar subjects. The former adopts a bouncy bravado as the young neo-expressionist while the latter takes on a wiry, self-flagellating anxiety as Warhol, who is concerned with aging out of the industry. Anna Fleischle works double duty as costume and scenic designer. She is the production’s faithful aesthetic compass, cloaking Pope in slouchy neutral sweats, Bettany in Warhol’s signature black turtleneck and piercing red glasses and letting both men play on her brightly lit, ergonomic studio set. Wig designers Karicean “Karen” Dick and Carol Robinson sell the imitation game even harder with Basquiat’s free-flowing palm tree locs and Warhol’s sharp, stark-white strands.
Warhol’s warnings edge their way into Basquiat’s heart as the two grow closer and toss questions back and forth in the play’s second act. Sometimes, they are weighty inquisitions — like when Warhol probes Basquiat about his Haitian and Puerto Rican ancestry. At other times, they are shallow jabs about dating Madonna. McCarten flip-flops between two plays: the first is a drama ideating on the psychological toll of creating art for consumption while young and Black or old and white; the second is a comedy about two dudes becoming friends. Neither is fully realized, especially when McCarten introduces heavier topics like the NYPD’s brutal beating of Black street artist Michael Stewart or Warhol’s queer identity. Director Kwame Kwei-Armah attempts to paint over the script’s imperfections through explosive staging and a killer disco-funk soundtrack, but ultimately the weaknesses of “The Collaboration” peek through the canvas.
“The Collaboration” is a play that takes great pains to display the humanity of two inconceivably famous men, forever iconized because of their work. Both Basquiat and Warhol created images that remain seared into the collective mind, even as they struggled to define themselves as individuals. McCarten’s play dances around major topics like discrimination and drug addiction in order to get us closer to the men behind the paintings, but a steadfast pursuit of an enemies-to-friends story arc denies audiences a fully realized investigation of either man. Like most contemporary art, “The Collaboration” is attractive and fun to look at, but only as profound as you interpret it to be.
“The Collaboration” was scheduled to open at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre on Dec. 20, 2022. Due to a COVID case within the company, the opening night performance was canceled. An official opening date has yet to be announced.
Review photo: Jeremy Daniel with scenic and costume design by Anna Fleischle.
Creative: Written by Anthony McCarten; Original music by Ayanna Witter-Johnson; Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah; Scenic design by Anna Fleischle; Costume design by Anna Fleischle; Lighting design by Ben Stanton; Sound design by Emma Laxton; projection design by Duncan McLean; Wig design by Karicean “Karen” Dick and Carol Robinson; Dialect and vocal coach Deboracg Hecht.
Produced by Manhattan Theatre Club, artistic director Lynne Meadow, executive producer Barry Grove; Young Vic Theatre, artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah, executive director Lucy Davies.
Cast: Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope, Krysta Rodriguez and Erik Jensen.