Review by Brittany Crowell
Basquiat & Warhol. An artist who spills out their soul onto the canvas in a healing ritual & an artist recreating life and media, looking out on the world as it turns around them; together, they form a collaboration that amounted to over 100 paintings and a worth then unheard of in the art world.
Anthony McCarten, author of many awarded films such as ‘The Two Popes’ and ‘The Theory of Everything,’ penned this gripping and poignant theatrical piece (to be adapted into film for release in 2023) exploring art and the artist – why the artist creates, what art says, what mysterious powers it may behold, and how it can break us down and build us up.
Basquiat, a graffiti-turned-fine-artist and Warhol, already celebrated and post-Solanas shooting, are placed in the studio together by their wiley art-dealer, Bruno Bischofberger. Real-life Warhol and Basquiat met through mutual friends and had a clear friendship and ease of collaboration, however, McCarten imagines these two hesitant collaborators at heads in the first act, asking how their differing techniques and views on art may collide to make something beautiful. The first half of the piece is musing, as the two artists prod each other, questioning their differing approaches and challenging the other to break down artistic barriers: Warhol to pick up the paintbrush, Basquiat to step in front of the camera.
In act two, we jump years into the future and into their friendship. Bischofberger is asking Warhol to speak with Basquiat about his drug habit. Basquiat’s ex-lover, Maya (a character based on Basquiat’s lovers, but seemingly created for this piece), appears in the apartment looking for money promised to her by Basquiat for an abortion. We learn that Basquiat’s friend and frequent street art collaborator, Michael Stewart, has been beaten ruthlessly by the NYPD and is in the hospital. Basquiat arrives, planning to paint Stewart back into health. When the news arrives of Stewart’s death, however, the two painters butt heads again.
In the argument that follows, both artists throw hurtful comments back and forth in their search for understanding. We learn that painting for each in their own way is a search for beauty, a healing ritual, a desire to create something that will last forever. Direction by Kwame Kwei-Armah alludes to art as weapon and healing as Basquiat turns the camera accusingly and threateningly towards Warhol, placing him under the gun.
Scenic designer Anna Fleischle (who also designed the costumes for the piece) plays with the dichotomy of Warhol vs. Basquiat as well, setting act 1 in Warhol’s crisply clean studio in contrast to the mess of Basquiat’s in Act 2. Lighting design by Ben Stanton and projection design by Duncan McLean delineate film from reality, creating sharp lighting contrasts and portraying the images as they are being captured on the studio walls and surrounding screens, transporting the audience into the video itself.
While the text, design, and direction of this piece are beautifully tactful, emotional and thought-provoking, they would be nothing if not for the outstanding performances of Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol and Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat. Bettany embraces his height with a discomfort, often pulling at his skin and examining himself in the mirror. A true presence onstage, he embraces Warhol’s self-conscious nature with confidence and charm. Pope gives a truly moving performance as the flirtatious and ephemeral Basquiat. His enigmatic performance in act one breaks apart in the glorious heart-wrenching vulnerability of act two, and the audience can’t help but feel the pangs of dramatic irony and agree with Warhol’s pleading sentiment, “Jean-Michel Basquiat … no, no.. I order you to live forever … forever and ever.”
THE COLLABORATION –
by Anthony McCarten; directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah
FEATURING – Paul Bettany (Andy Warhol); Jeremy Pope (Jean-Michel Basquiat); Krysta Rodriguez (Maya); Erik Jensen (Bruno Bischofberger)
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 & Carol Robinson; original music by Ayanna Witter-Johnson; dialect and vocal coaching by Deborah Hecht. Presented by Manhattan Theatre Club: Lynne Meadow, artistic director; Barry Grove, executive producer; & The Young Vic Theatre: Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director; Lucy Davies, executive director. Playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 W 47th Street) through Jan 29, 2023. Run Time: 2 hours, one 15 minute intermission. Tickets and more info can be found HERE.