By EDWARD RUBIN
Having lived in New York City’s East Village for many decades –I know the very neighborhood where much of the action in Anthony McCarten’s currently running Broadway play The Collaboration takes place, and where art world legends Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) – here channeled by actors Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope – could frequently be seen roaming the streets.
Just reading for weeks on end about McCarten’s The Collaboration working its way from London’s Old Vic to Broadway’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (despite the play’s mixed reviews), had me hot, bothered, and as Dame Edna would say, moist.
Obviously, I was lusting to return to the 60s, 70s and early 80s – the pre-AIDS days – where all of the happening people, and those that actually believed they were happening, gathered to play, display and get laid at Max’s Kansas City, the Chelsea Hotel, the Filmore East and Studio 54, to name but a few of the then city’s more popular hotspots.
The play opens, with a story-setting prologue if you will, at the Zurich gallery of Andy Warhol’s Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (Eric Jensen), where he is showing Andy the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquait.
It seems that Bischofberger, who also represents the up-and-coming Basquiat, is hell-bent on pairing the work of both artists in what he is sure would be “the greatest exhibition ever in the history of art.”
Though the timing was perfect, as the sales of the 56-year-old Warhol – who hadn’t lifted a paint brush in decades – were at a low ebb, and the 24-year-old jazz-loving Jean-Michel’s paintings were selling like hotcakes and were all the rage; both artists had to be tricked by Bischofberger into collaborating, as Warhol didn’t get Jean-Michel’s “busy paintings with skulls and grave stones everywhere were bleak. All these words and symbols. What’s it all mean? What’s he trying to say? They’re so ugly and angry and yeah, well they’re kinda violent. I’d be careful, he’s really in trouble, I think.”
And, as far as Basquait, Warhol was old hat. “Does anyone really care about Warhol anymore? All that fag silk screen stuff,” he quips. Of course, money won the day, and the crowd-pleasing show which boosted the sales of both artists opened in NYC at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery in September 1985.
Jumping forward a couple of years at the play’s end, and just before the overdose death of Basquiat and Warhol’s botched gall bladder operation, we find ourselves at Sotheby’s. With projected images of the Collaboration Paintings flashing by, we are listening to a real life recording of their auctioneer. “I’m going to start the bidding here” he says. “57 million dollars, 65 million dollars on the telephone now, 69 million dollars now. New bidder. 91 million dollars now, 92 million dollars, at 98 million dollars the hammer is up, sir, and selling for 98 million dollars.“
In between the opening and closing of the two-hour play, with more fictives than lice on the body of an alley cat (read imagined conversations), the playwright recounts in lecture-like scenes the storied lives, along with the opposing art philosophies,of each artist from their beginnings to their end, from their initial wariness to their eventual friendship.
Special attention is paid to a number of major events such as Warhol being shot by Valerie Solanas, the horrific death of a close graffiti artist friend of Basquiat’s, and the repeated mention of Basquiat’s bedding of Madonna which held special interest for the gossip loving Warhol. Another one of Basquiat’s girlfriends Maya (Krysta Rodriquez) in an underwritten role, makes two cameo appearances, the most interesting being her purchase of Basquiat’s graffiti covered refrigerator from his studio apartment.
The play, which I thoroughly enjoyed, mostly because I actually played and lived through these times, after two extensions, closes on Saturday, February 11.
This said: The Collaboration is well worth seeing, if only to experience the finely-calibrated rock star tour-de-force performances of Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope
Cast: Cast: Paul Bettany (Andy Warhol), Jeremy Pope (Jean-Michel Basquiat), Krysta Rodriquez (Maya), Erik Jensen (Bruno Bischofberger)
Technical: Scenic & Costume Design: Anna Fleischle, Lighting Design: Ben Stanton, Sound Design: Emma Laxton, Production Design: Duncan McLean, Wig Design: Karicean ” Karen” Dick & Carol Robinson, Original Music: Ayanna Witter-Johnson, Dialect & Vocal Coach: Deborah Hecht, Production Stage Manager: James Latus
The Collaboration (2 hours including a 15-minute intermission), is directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah and continues at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 W. 47th Street in New York. Extended twice in its Broadway premiere, it closes on February 11, 2023. For online tickets, click on the Manhattan Theatre Club website or call Telecharge at 212-239-6300.
Edward Rubin is a member of American Theatre Critics Association, NYC’s Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, International Association of Theatre Critics, the International Association of Art Critics and PEN American Center.