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Review: The Collaboration, With Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope, Is Silly Warhol/Basquiat Fan Fic

Anthony McCarten's new play also stars Erik Jensen and Krysta Rodriguez.

Note: The scheduled opening night of The Collaboration, December 20, was postponed due to a positive Covid case in the company. Performances resume on Monday, December 26.

Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol in The Collaboration
(© Jeremy Daniel)

I don't really care for the "imagined meeting between two historical figures" genre of entertainment. Whether a movie, theater, or novel, works like this are junk food: the chance to put a writer's own assumptions into the mouths of people who probably didn't actually have such lofty conversations about life or art or politics, if they were ever even in the same room at all. Anthony McCarten's The Collaboration, now on Broadway at the Friedman Theatre after a run earlier this year at the Young Vic in London, is the latest in this particular canon, and it is more of the same.

McCarten envisions the conversations had by two figures who, in this case, at least, did in fact meet — a fading Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany in your typical Spirit Halloween fright wig) and a rising Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope). At the behest of their mutual agent, Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jensen, sans wig but with a silly Swiss accent), the pair gets together to create a joint exhibition. Warhol, who gave up painting 25 years prior, has made his pop cultural iconography his stock-in-trade, which Basquiat considers lazy. He also views Basquiat, the rising star of the art scene, as his rival, despite their styles being completely different. As expected, the next two hours will see them go from butting heads to becoming mutual admirers, and even caring friends.

The first act is basically a wash, overly talky and expository in a way that usually signals a writer's juvenilia: Warhol gets crucial information out of Basquiat by putting him on camera and asking a bunch of questions about his experiences (eventually, Basquiat turns the camera on Warhol, too). It's labored and boring, quite frankly, with the two actors doing their best to enliven things, but weighed down by clunky dialogue and generally leaden direction by Kwame Kwei-Armah.

Things pick up after intermission when there's some real drama. It's three years later now. The pair have collaborated on more than a dozen pieces, their relationship blossomed into a true platonic love (though there are constant hints at more). Warhol is pretty much still the same Warhol, but Basquiat, now extraordinarily successful, churns out one expensive painting after another, the money either going in his fridge (because he's so suspicious of banks) or to pay for his heroin habit. When Basquiat's ex-girlfriend (Krysta Rodriguez, who makes the most of a glorified cameo) arrives bearing bad news, things go off the rails even further. Like Act 1, the second act is still ridiculous and contrived and sort of impossible to take seriously, but it allows Bettany and Pope to sink their teeth into big feelings, which is fun to watch, but would be more fun if the play were a half-hour shorter.

Bettany is even less recognizable here than he was as Vision (which says a lot, considering how his face was bright burgundy on that series), and he gives us a quirky Warhol that's surprisingly grounded. In Anna Fleischle's form-fitting '80s costumes (she also did the transformative art studio set), Bettany grounds Warhol in a nervous sadness, which creeps into voyeuristic menace the second he picks up his camcorder (a feeling emphasized by the sudden shifts in Ben Stanton's lighting). Notably, Bettany never really veers into caricature, which is the ultimate win of his performance.

Pope has the more noticeable arc. He's an excitable punk in the first act, dancing around the room listening to Miles Davis and brimming with the kind of hot-shit energy that anyone who's constantly told they're the next big thing would be filled with. His transformation into the shell of a man he becomes, with the youthful verve replaced with anger and heartbreak, is kind of stunning.

Pope and Bettany do what they can to add heft to the experience, and Kwei-Armah has tried to make the production as fun as possible with DJ theoretic spinning '80s jams before the show and during intermission. But much like McCartan's other Broadway show this season, the Neil Diamond musical A Beautiful Noise, The Collaboration goes in one ear and out the other, not quite befitting of the legacy of the two artists at its center.

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