We hear the word collaboration a lot these days, whether it’s the UNIQLO x JW Anderson fall/winter collection, a hit single from Sam Smith and Kim Petras, or an OnlyFans euphemism for, well, you know what. Anthony McCarten’s latest play, receiving its US premiere on Broadway right now, takes us into the midst of one of the art world’s most legendary collabs—pitched by its promotor with the imagery and all the hype of a boxing match—that between Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope), culminating in a New York gallery show in 1985. Inviting us behind closed doors to witness the private conversations between these two figures is an enticing premise, and McCarten has created an engaging work that deftly moves from funny to thought-provoking to heartbreaking, which is elevated to another level by its performances.
Before the curtain goes up, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre becomes the hottest 80s club in town, as the audience is treated to a pre-show disco. I caught a Sunday matinee, but the DJ still managed to get the ushers and an elderly couple dancing in the aisles, and initiated a singalong to Whitney’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”; setting a buoyant mood for the play’s witty, generally light-hearted first act.
One of the play’s strengths is its effective structure. As it opens we meet art dealer, collector, and promotor Bruno Bischofberger (a vibrant Erik Jensen bringing an amusing awkwardness) as he separately pitches the idea of a joint exhibition of new paintings to Warhol then Basquiat. Each harboring their own reservations, the two come together, sounding each other out, sparing, and bristling at each other’s comments, until the younger artist encourages Andy to pick up a paint brush for the first time in over twenty years, and the collaboration commences. The second act picks things up around two years later, when a touchingly close bond has developed between them as they work on their final piece.
McCarten is no stranger to taking inspiration from real life to create scenarios and dialogue for world famous figures, he’s had experience with Churchill (Darkest Hour), Freddie Mercury (Bohemian Rhapsody), Stephen Hawking (The Theory of Everything), and most recently Whitney Houston (I Wanna Dance With Somebody). In fact, this play forms part of McCarten’s Worship Trilogy, along with The Two Popes about Popes Benedict XVI and Francis, and Wednesday at Warren’s Friday at Bill’s about Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. Whereas religion and money are the focus of those two plays, in The Collaboration it’s the worship of art that’s examined, with the writer using Warhol and Basquiat’s apparently opposing views to debate the purpose of art itself, the impulse for creating it, and the impact of its increased commercialization on the artist and the world. Though religion is also present in the form of Warhol’s Catholicism and Basquiat’s belief in the mystical power of art. Money is a frequent topic too, with Basquiat’s refrigerator filled with thousands of dollars in cash, which spill out over his apartment floorboards at one point.
Although McCarten does reference actual events and sometimes uses words that the artists really spoke or wrote in his dialogue, the writer takes liberal artistic license. He’s less concerned with chronological or factual accuracy, than he is with capturing the spirit of these men and imagining what they were like when they were alone together. It’s a freedom that allows McCarten to speculate that Andy’s resistance to painting was because it had become too emotional for him, and sees the men find some common ground as they share the influence that their mothers had in their early artistic endeavors.
The terrific lead performances enable these icons to be at once ciphers for McCarten to explore the play’s themes as well as living breathing humans. It’s not an easy task to humanize these behemoths of the art world, especially given that one of them famously reveled in cultivating and maintaining a cool impenetrable veneer of superficiality, while the other died far too young. Bettany and Pope—reprising their roles from the original acclaimed production at London’s Young Vic Theatre—meet that challenge, imbuing each of them with rich inner lives as the play examines the dynamics between the men who came together at starkly different stages in their careers. Resentment and insecurity is in the air, as Warhol’s star is beginning to wane, while Basquiat has been embraced as an exciting new voice.
In between the London production and this Broadway run, the actors shot a film adaptation—with Kwame Kwei-Armah, who directed both stage productions, making his feature filmmaking debut—further deepening their familiarity with the roles, evident in their lived-in performances. Armah’s sharp direction keeps things tension-filled, making the most of every beat and keeping us conscious of the physical space between the pair as the dynamics ebb and flow. Sexual tension enriches the relationship as we encounter it in the play, and is most evident in the charged moments when the two are physically close.
Bettany’s Warhol draws us in, bringing a warmth to the socially uncomfortable, capricious, proud but vulnerable figure. Generally tight-lipped, one stand-out sequence, played with real attack by Bettany, sees Andy launch into a detailed description of how he spent the previous evening, complete with the signature name-dropping, barbarous observations—and the cost of his taxi rides—found in his posthumously published diaries (recently adapted by Andrew Rossi into the brilliant Netflix docuseries, The Andy Warhol Diaries). What really shines here though is the stunning work by Pope, delivering one of the most emotionally connected and moving performances I’ve ever witnessed in the theatre, that saw tears streaming down my face for much of the second act. Pope compellingly captures the artist’s creative passion and restless energy as he works and dances, his bubbling inner turmoil, and deep pain at the loss of his friend, street artist Michael Stewart, following the injuries he sustained when arrested for graffitiing the subway. The tone shifts as the damage done to Michael’s hospitalized body is described in devastating detail and in Pope’s hands it is a particularly potent and troubling section of the play. His recent captivating central turn in Elegance Bratton’s The Inspection had a similar power, and both roles deserve to see Pope receive recognition this awards season as one of the finest actors currently working on stage and screen.
McCarten channels Basquiat’s rage and frustration about his treatment as a Black man in America as he expresses his fears about encountering the authorities himself following Michael’s death to his ex-girlfriend Maya (Krysta Rodriguez—wonderful in Halston—bringing an enticing 80s East Village distressed glamour and intriguing emotional numbness to the role). The play also touches on Basquiat’s resistance to being defined and categorized by race, rather than simply being referred to as an American artist, and his discomfort with the description of his work as “primal”. It’s Pope’s performance that brings real depth to these observations.
Anna Fleischle’s impressive sets—Warhol’s Union Square studio in the first act and Basquait’s East Village apartment/studio in the second—are so convincing that it’s almost hard to believe that they’ve been created for the production rather than transplanted piece by piece from real NYC locations. Duncan McLean’s stylish projection design sees archive footage of Manhattan exteriors on screens at either side of the stage which further immerse us in the time and place, while sparingly, but impactfully projecting the artwork itself on to the stage. With Warhol initially only agreeing to work with Basquiat if he could film him, we see footage from Warhol’s camera as if being captured live projected on to the walls of the set, bringing an electric immediacy and adding another layer to the tension between the perception of authenticity and the created image.
Continually entertaining, and occasionally gripping, it’s the lead performances—especially Pope’s—that make The Collaboration unmissable.
By James Kleinmann
The Collaboration officially opened on Tuesday, December 20th, 2022 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 West 47th Street). Tickets are on sale now at Telecharge.com, by phone at 212-239-6200, or at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre box office. Join MTC’s season of plays by calling the MTC Clubline at 212-399-3050 or go to manhattantheatreclub.com.