“And the Tony Award for Best Wigs goes to… Karicean ‘Karen’ Dick and Carol Robinson for ‘The Collaboration’!”
If only the Tonys gave out such an award, Dick and Robinson would deserve it, because just about the only thing that Anthony McCarten’s new play gets right are the wigs worn by the characters he has named Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “The Collaboration” opened Tuesday at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre after a run at London’s Young Vic Theatre.
Before we get to the fictitious mess that McCarten manufactures to tell the true story of Warhol and Basquiat’s artistic collaborations in the 1980s, it is amazing that two wig makers were required to create only three wigs. Playing Warhol, “WandaVision” star Paul Bettany wears the artist’s signature ill-fitting white mop throughout the show. Playing Basquiat, actor Jeremy Pope wears an extravagant hairpiece in Act 1. For some reason, he switches to a model with less spiky dreads in Act 2. Who gave him haircut tips during the intermission? Warhol? Madonna? Or one of the many other celebs McCarten namedrops during the course of this two-hour play? Surprisingly, Basquiat’s major hairstyle change is the least of what happens between the two acts. As McCarten tells it, the old man of pop art and the Young Turk of neo-expressionism go from being bitchy rivals to bosom buddies during those momentuous 15 minutes.
There used to be a time in the theater when writers, if they wanted to rip off a person’s life story, resorted to writing a roman a clef. George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber did it to the Barrymores with their classic 1927 comedy, “The Royal Family.” Cut to the present and recent past. David Hare’s “Straight Line Crazy” purports to be about Robert Moses. James Graham’s “Ink” purports to be about Rupert Murdoch. Both Hare and Graham drop enough real names that audiences are confused into thinking that what transpires on stage is based on fact. At best, these plays are “inspired” by real events. At worst, they distort the truth.
Compared to “The Collaboration,” however, “Ink” and “Straight Line Crazy” come straight from the lips of Veritas.
According to McCarten, Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jensen) masterminded the collaboration between Warhol and Basquiat, an artistic and business deal that both men initially despised and had to be dragged kicking and mincing just to meet. This set-up, while untrue, does create drama. Warhol sneers at this untalented young upstart of color. And Basquiat considers Warhol an aging homosexual has-been. Act 1 is spent watching the two of them argue and not create very much art. Left out of this false concoction is the fact that the real Basquiat hung out at Warhol’s Factory, absolutely worshiped at the altar of Andy and wanted nothing more than to replicate the icon’s fading but still-immense fame. The real Bischofberger did arrange a lunch for the two artists and did suggest they collaborate, but Warhol and Basquiat had already started that collaboration without telling their art dealer. For some reason, McCarten leaves out any mention of Francesco Clemente, who had collaborated with both Warhol and Basquiat before the duo went off to do their own thing.
Warhol and Basquiat’s exhibition took place in 1984, the year I wrote a street-fashion book titled “Wild Style.” In downtown clubs like Aria and Danceteria, Basquiat and Robert Mapplethorpe were well known for being only slightly less publicity-hungry than Keith Haring. Self-promotion was a lesson Warhol taught these men, all of whom were very eager, observant students.
In “The Collaboration,” McCarten takes the far more retro and, frankly, stereotypical view of The Artist. McCarten’s Basquiat in Act 1 eschews the limelight — he’s too iconoclastic — and resists Warhol’s every attempt to photograph or videotape him. One has to wonder if this playwright, in researching his subject, never came across the trove of photographs that document the very public friendship of Warhol and Basquiat, who clearly loved basking in the attention not only of the press but his mentor.
Besides being a lousy researcher, McCarten isn’t much of a fiction writer, either. A few minutes into “The Collaboration,” Bischofberger delivers the play’s big Rosebud moment when he tells Warhol, “You don’t know how to return love.”
Spoiler alert: Warhol learns how to return love in Act 2. During intermission, he also teaches Basquiat to love caviar, champagne and limousines. As played by Bettany, Warhol suffers from logorrhea but uses this chronic condition to play therapist to bring out Basquiat’s deepest, darkest secrets. Andy as shrink? If nothing else, this skill is a distinctly new flavor for the bio of the Campbell’s Soup legend.
Besides the two wigs he wears, Pope does manage to expose some truth about Basquiat. While McCarten stuffs old tropes of artistic integrity into his mouth, Pope directs his lines not at Bettany but the audience. He preens, he prances, he spends much of the second act downstage gazing out over the theater. If Warhol doesn’t know how to return love, Basquiat never notices. He has enough love for both of them.
Basquiat’s girlfriend (Krysta Rodriguez playing a composite of women) makes her presence felt in Act 2. She rags on Jean being a self-centered jerk, but in an amazing back flip, she goes on to deliver a Hallmark Valentine to her lover, telling us, “He knows he’s a f— up. He doesn’t hide it. That’s what makes him so lovable. He’s so fragile, and vulnerable, and sweet. I just want to run a bath and wash him…scrub him clean, every time I see him.” It’s no wonder McCarten doesn’t attach a real woman’s name to this character. She suffers from masochistic delusion. Bischofberger, on the other hand, is very much alive and accurately named, which probably explains why that character gets hagiographic treatment.
Kwame Kwei-Armah directs, and while he can’t make sense of what’s going on for anyone who knew what really went on between Warhol and Basquiat, he does add considerable punch to Act 2. While Basquiat paints one of his masterpieces, Warhol finally finds a way to videotape him. Suddenly, Anna Fleischle’s realistic artist-studio set is flooded with those gigantic, all-enveloping images from Warhol’s camera. The extended moment says more about two artists’ obsessive narcissism than anything written by McCarten.