Theatre Review by Howard Miller - December 20, 2022
The Collaboration by Anthony McCarten. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. Scenic and 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. Original music by Ayanna Witter-Johnson. Dialect and vocal coach Deborah Hecht.
The Collaboration is built around both real and imagined interactions in the mid-1980s between the world-weary iconic pop artist Andy Warhol and the 25-year-old wild child rising star of the art world, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Though they had little in common, they came together at the urging of an international art dealer to produce a series of jointly created paintings, with the aim of bolstering both their careers.
Warhol, 30 years older than Basquiat, is very much a part of the white art world establishment, as much a celebrity as an artist; by the start of the play, he hadn't even picked up a brush in nearly a quarter century, having put his artistic energies into silk screen printing and experimental filmmaking. For his part, Basquiat, the precocious Brooklyn-born son of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, is portrayed as a "rebel without a cause" who first drew attention as a graffiti artist and who rose to the head of his class as part of the neo-expressionist movement, filling his works with politicized images representing social class distinctions, Black identity, and systemic racism.
The real-life Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger, here played by Erik Jensen, represented both men and was quite the promoter, pushing the joint project and widely publicizing it as if Warhol (Paul Bettany) and Basquiat (Jeremy Pope) were a pair of boxing rivals getting ready for the big showdown, the art world's version of the "Thrilla in Manila" match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier.
This was not necessarily a match made in heaven, however. The play opens with Bischofberger dragging Warhol to the dealer's New York gallery to view an exhibit of Basquiat works (we can see a couple of them hanging on the wall). Warhol gapes for a while, before recoiling with his opening lines: "Oh my God. It's too much. All those skulls and gravestones everywhere. They're so ugly and angry and kind of violent." And when Bischofberger talks to Basquiat, what he gets in response is: "Does anyone really care about Warhol anymore? All that fag silk screen stuff? Marilyns, Elvises, soup cans?"
So, of course, you know they will get together, unwillingly at first, but ultimately coming to both a practical understanding and a slowly building personal relationship. That, in essence, is the play.
McCarten, the playwright, is no stranger to rearranging biographical talking points into theater pieces. Even now he is represented elsewhere on Broadway with A Beautiful Noise, a bio-jukebox musical based on the life and career of Neil Diamond. For that show, McCarten's skill at honing the facts into a workable book is effective and mostly avoids the typical "Wikipedia" version of its central figure. But A Beautiful Noise has its wide array of familiar tunes to engage the audience. The bio stuff takes a back seat, and it is more than adequate. On the other hand, with The Collaboration, every talking point and unfortunate art world cliché stands out like an array of sore thumbs. This is true even though the subject matter itself is interesting, and the performances are often quite engaging.
Director Kwame Kwei-Armah and the design team have worked diligently to deflect from a "talking heads" approach to the production. Scenic designer Anna Fleischle, who also created the costumes for the show, has provided two distinct studio spaces, each reflecting the personality of its artist.
But the effort to sweep up the audience into the atmosphere starts as we enter the theater and are transported either to the Studio 54 dance club, one of Warhol's well-known hangouts, or perhaps to an experiential exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. A display of polka dots and searchlights dance across the ceiling, random videos of the city of the type that Warhol frequently produced are displayed on several screens, and a DJ is on hand to hit us up with the likes of Blondie's "Heart of Glass," The Human League's "Don't You Want Me," and even Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody," a song that might have been inserted as a sly plug for the playwright's upcoming biofilm about Houston. At the performance I attended, at least, it got a number of audience members up on their feet and dancing up to the opening scene.
In September of 1985, art critic Vivien Raynor published a piece in The New York Times about Warhol and Basquiat. "Last year," she wrote, "I said of Basquiat that he had a chance of becoming a very good painter providing he didn't succumb to the forces that would make him an art world mascot. This year, it appears that those forces have prevailed, for Basquiat is now on stage doing a pas de deux with Andy Warhol." That "pas de deux," which is the subject of The Collaboration, takes an interesting turn with the passage of time: one of Basquiat's paintings recently sold for $85 million, while one of Warhol's Marilyn Monroe silk-screens fetched $195 million. Clearly, both artists have made their impact, but it takes a lot of hype and salesmanship to draw buyers. The same could also be said of The Collaboration, which relies on an intense curiosity about two of the most recognizable names in modern art. The question is, are you buying?