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The Collaboration

  • Theater, Drama
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration
Photograph: Courtesy Jeremy DanielThe Collaboration

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope play Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat in a sketchy biodrama.

Broadway review by Adam Feldman 

Reviewing a 1985 exhibit of 16 paintings created jointly by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, two of the era’s shiniest art stars, the New York Times critic Vivien Raynor dismissed it as a stunt, accusing Warhol of pulling the public’s leg with help from his junior “mascot” and “all too willing accessory” Basquiat. In a nod to the show’s poster, which winkingly depicted the artists in boxing gloves, she concluded her assessment thus: “Warhol, TKO in 16 rounds.'' Both painters would be dead by the end of the decade: Warhol from postsurgical complications in 1987, at the age of 58; Basquiat from a heroin overdose in 1989, at the age of 27. Anthony McCarten’s artsploitation drama The Collaboration throws them back in the ring in a fictionalized dual portrait that finds them alternately sparring and bonding over the course of a shared two-year project. 

McCarten is a New Zealander with a penchant for biographical drama; he wrote the screenplays for The Theory of Everything, Bohemian Rhapsody and The Two Popes, as well as the book for current Neil Diamond musical A Beautiful Noise. In The Collaboration, both of his subjects have well-defined personas (or as Warhol might say, brands): Andy is the pale and affectless—not to say artless—weirdo in a white fright wig, surrounding himself with outrageous characters as he placidly sells mass-produced commercial culture back to itself at a markup; Jean is the brash young graffiti artist of Caribbean extraction, lashing out at convention in chaotic, scribbly, cartoonish collages of vivid images and text. The play imagines what they might have been like behind the masks they fashioned for the public, but rarely gets far beyond the surface. It's Wikitheater.

The Collaboration | Photograph: Jeremy Daniel

Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, The Collaboration is a time-travel exercise (an onstage DJ plays ‘80s hits before each act, to create a period party atmosphere), and it is meant to be a study in contrasts. But the balance isn’t harmonious. As Warhol, Paul Bettany gets to play a piquantly mannered character; this Andy—depicted as a borderline-neurodivergent voyeur who has closed himself from the world after a traumatic brush with death—seems overeager to expound at length on his artistic ideology, but at least he’s amusingly bitchy about everyone, including himself. (His monologue about his nightlife as a social gadfly-butterfly, inspired by Warhol’s vapid diaries, is a highlight.) The playwright and actor give him a hint of sentimentality that contradicts his cynical ennui. 

Basquiat, though, doesn’t have as much to do: He gets less stage time and is drawn with less detail. That's not as apparent in the first act, when the artists are brought together by Warhol’s Swiss art dealer, Bruno (an amiably unctuous Erik Jensen). But in the second half, set two years later, much of his story is delivered second-hand by a composite ex-girlfriend (Krysta Rodriguez, dressed up like Chrissie Hynde, in an unplayable role), and the play seems ever more determined to define Basquiat by his Blackness; it even moves the infamous 1983 murder of graffiti artist Michael Stewart by NYPD officers to 1985, thus providing an occasion to drive Jean to drugs. And although this Basquiat bristles to hear his work described as “primal,” the play embeds that notion—and arguably takes it a step further into superstitious primitivism—in its own depiction of Basquiat’s beliefs about his art. (“Paintings can have supernatural power if you imbue them with them,” he says. “They're like... incantations. It's a ritual, you know. Ancient ritual.”) Pope fills out the character’s generalities with graceful movement, flashing a charming smile then skulking with attitude a moment later, as Andy records him on film. But the play doesn’t bring him into focus. The fix is in: Warhol, TKO in two acts. 

The Collaboration. Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (Broadway). By Anthony McCarten. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. With Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope, Erik Jensen, Krysta Rodriguez. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.

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The Collaboration | Photograph: Jeremy Daniel

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman


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