The best part about shuffling into Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre is not to see The Collaboration (★★☆☆☆), Manhattan Theater Club’s latest production that reimagines the relationship between Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope). What happens before the show and during intermission is the true highlight of an otherwise bland theatrical experience.
The self-described “unapologetically, black, genderqueer, Brooklyn based DJ” theoretic works the audience into a state of excitement as they spin disco favorites and artists from the eighties.
It’s hard to sit still with so many classic tunes permeating the air. Then the music fades, the lights dim, and theoretic, standing in their DJ booth, is whisked offstage. Unfortunately, we won’t see them again until intermission — and that will feel like a very long time.
Warhol and Basquiat, two New York City-based Neo-expressionist artists have become Deities of design since their premature deaths at 58 and 27, respectively. Earlier this year, Netflix released The Andy Warhol Diaries, a documentary series based on the book by Warhol cohort Pat Hackett. New Yorkers recently caught a glimpse of how Warhol’s Catholic faith influenced his work in “Revelation,” an exhibit at the Brooklyn museum. Chasing Andy Warhol, an immersive, downtown theater event, also gave fans the opportunity to learn more about the Pittsburgh, Pa. native.
Basquiat’s aura also hovers large. Film director and painter Julian Schnabel paid homage to his friend in the 1996 movie, Basquiat. Galleries around the world continue to showcase Basquiat’s work, including “King Pleasure,” an NYC exhibition currently on display in Chelsea.
The two artists forged a friendship and joined forces on several art projects beginning in 1982. Their gallery show, held in 1985 at the Tony Shafrazi gallery was a critical flop. So bad, in fact, that their friendship slowly dissolved. A few years later, both artists died.
It makes sense, then, that a playwright would find the pair suitable subjects for drama. The two approached art in disparate ways, were somewhat envious of each other’s talents, and were from different generations and cultural backgrounds.
Still, for all the information we’ve learned about Warhol and Basquiat, playwright Anthony McCarten paints their history with a superficial and revisionist brush. His depiction of how the two met is historically inaccurate. So is the way in which their friendship ended. Everything that happens in between in The Collaboration moves at a glacial pace through benign writing that neither enthralls nor captivates.
None of the themes here are revelatory or enlightening. In two hours, we’re taught that selling out is bad, forging a new artistic path is an asset, substance abuse is deadly, and even well-regarded stars are lonely at the top. It’s the stuff of nearly every artist’s biography. (McCarten’s treatment of Neil Diamond in Broadway’s current Beautiful Noise falls into the same trap of merely scratching the surface of these larger-than-life personalities.)
Bettany and Pope are not to blame for the mundane script. Bettany is excellent as the socially awkward, neurotic, and insecure Warhol. He lends gentleness and vulnerability to the role and avoids turning Warhol into a stereotypical whiny figure.
The Tony-nominated Pope conjures Basquiat’s relentless spirit for unbridled artistic expression and switches between rational thought and drug-addled reactiveness. Pope is an exciting young actor, having previously been seen on Broadway in Ain’t Too Proud and Choir Boy, in the Netflix melodrama Hollywood, and in the current LGBTQ film, The Inspection. Here, he’s delivering a first-rate performance with a second-tier script.
Erik Jensen is fine as Bruno Bischofberger, the Swiss art dealer who orchestrated the artists’ meeting. Yet he’s featured so infrequently that there is no character development. Nor is there any depth for Maya (Krysta Rodriguez), Basquiat’s girlfriend. She also has a trivial amount of stage time and McCarten doesn’t seem to believe that she’s even worthy of a last name. When she does appear, she’s burdened with such lines as “I need the money to make rent and have an abortion.”
With such prolific subjects, one wonders if The Collaboration would have been better served as a two-hander. One also must question how this mediocre production transferred from London’s Young Vic Theatre and managed to be adapted into a feature film, to be released in 2023 with Bettany and Pope in the same roles.
Kwame Kwei-Armah capably directs his quartet but there is little he can do to elevate the story. Duncan McLean’s projection designs bring a grainy, gritty sense of New York in the eighties and wig designers Karicean “Karen” Dick and Carol Robinson have captured the distinct hairstyles of this duo.
There have been worse shows produced on Broadway but with so many other riches to choose from, why settle for a prosaic reenactment of a story you already know? You’ll probably have a better time with theoretic at one of their dance parties — and pay a fraction of the cost.
The Collaboration runs through Jan. 29 at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th St. in New York City. Tickets are $84 to $298. Call 212-239-6200 or visit www.manhattantheatreclub.com.
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