Prosecutor: ‘Do you know how many people die from taking selfies each year?
Andy Warhol: ‘Not enough’.
Last night at Joe’s Pub in Downtown Manhattan, on the 35th anniversary of Andy Warhol’s death, writer-star Ryan Raftery took to the stage to channel the pop artist in his latest biomusical comedy, The Trial of Andy Warhol. In a riff on the Powell and Pressburger classic A Matter of Life and Death and Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life, the premise sees Warhol, who has been in purgatory since his passing, in the dock. The pop artist stands accused of paving the way for social media, today’s culture of celebrity worship, leading to the election of the 45th president, and exploiting those around him, passing off their ideas as his own.
Misusing the celestial court’s time machine, Warhol takes himself back to November 2013, to witness the record-breaking Sotheby’s sale of his Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) for $105.4 million, dryly observing from beyond the grave, “my ship has really come in”. Meanwhile two vacuous social media obsessives discuss the art works up for auction, with one of them describing Warhol as “the patron saint of influencers”.
Determined to stack the evidence against Warhol, the butch besuited prosecutor (a wonderfully stern Miranda Noelle Wilson) explores the artist’s childhood obsession with celebrities, Shirley Temple and Truman Capote, gradually moving through key points in his career and calling witnesses to the stand to testify against him. Those who take to the stand include his ill-fated muse Edie Sedgwick (Suzy Jane Hunt), fellow artist and collaborator Jean-Michel Basquiat (Devin Snow), and longtime friend Brigid Berlin (Jess Watkins, making some hilarious character choices).
“Everyone can sing in the afterlife” Warhol declares, leading into one of the show’s fun numbers, with witty reworked lyrics by Raftery to hit songs such as Gaga’s Rain on Me, the theme from Fame, I’ve Never Been to Me by Charlene, Blondie’s Heart of Glass, and Whitney’s Saving All My Love. The repurposing of existing songs feels very Warhol, and there’s an enjoyably eclectic mix of tunes, with lively musical direction by James Rushin. With precise direction by Jay Turton, the production uses the intimate Joe’s stage effectively—this is Raftery’s sixth consecutive show here, so he knows the space well—managing to fit in a five-piece band, occasionally the full cast, and even some delightfully restrained dance moves. There’s also some great use of projection, with Warhol’s work frequently appearing as its discussed, and a brilliantly conceived and executed screen test lip-synch sequence. While the only prop, appropriately enough, is a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup.
Taking on multiple roles, the entire ensemble is excellent, with Suzy Jane Hunt’s soulful Sedgwick and Devin Snow’s buoyant Basquiat—both in very fine voice—particular highlights. Raftery commands the stage as Warhol, like those images of him holding court at the Factory or Studio 54, portraying him as charismatic, calm, and measured, with an effortless razor sharp wit, as well as a little insecure, and vain about his hair, protesting that it’s not a wig (though it is a fine one in this production, designed by Isaac Davidson). It’s quite a feat to inject so much energy into that trademark nonchalant, rather monotone delivery, and Raftery pulls it off keeping his Warhol compelling throughout. He creates that Warhol protective mask, that was a sustained piece of performance art in itself, allowing us to see glimpses behind the carefully constructed veneer. There are some jokes about Liza, Liz Taylor, and OD’ing that feel in keeping with a certain perception of a provocative, even callous Andy, while Raftery is comfortable enough in the character to engage with the audience directly at times, and at the performance I saw he improvised brilliantly after getting a word wrong in the script.
Raftery clearly has a lot of admiration for Warhol and his achievements, and has done some extensive research on his life and inner circle, but the premise of the show allows for various critical voices about the figure—a man both ultra famous and enduringly enigmatic—to be debated. Among the laughter, there are some poignant moments, such as the homophobia within the art world that saw Warhol being shunned by some contemporary queer artists because of his dandy persona, and there’s a moving sadness to Hunt’s Sedgwick. Inventive, playful, and irreverent, The Trial of Andy Warhol celebrates and challenges our perception of Warhol and his legacy, while accepting his ultimate inscrutability, and has a hell of a lot of fun along the way.
By James Kleinmann
RYAN RAFTERY: THE TRIAL OF ANDY WARHOL runs on varying dates through Saturday, March 12th 2022. Tickets and more details are available joespub.com, over the phone 10am – 7pm (212-967-7555), and in-person at The Public Theater’s box office (425 Lafayette, NYC), opens daily at 2pm. There is a $12 food / two (2) drink minimum per person per show, unless otherwise noted.