Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope are Warhol and Basquiat in name only

“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 pretty much the only thing Anthony McCarten’s new play gets right is the wigs worn by the characters he named Andy Warhol and Jean- Michael Basquiat. “The Collaboration” opened Tuesday at MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theater after a run at the Young Vic Theater in London.

Before we get to the fictional mess McCarten makes to tell the true story of Warhol and Basquiat’s artistic collaborations in the 1980s, it’s a wonder that two wig makers were forced to create just three wigs. Playing Warhol, “WandaVision” star Paul Bettany wears the entertainer’s 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 pointy dreads in Act 2. Who gave him haircut advice during intermission? Warhol? Madonna? Or one of the many other celebrities named by McCarten during this two-hour piece? Surprisingly, Basquiat’s major hairstyle change is the least of what happens between the two acts. As McCarten recounts, the old man of pop art and the young Turk of neo-expressionism go from bitchy rivals to close pals during these memorable 15 minutes.

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There was a time in the theater when writers, if they wanted to rip the story out of a person’s life, resorted to writing a roman en clef. George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber did it at the Barrymores with their classic 1927 comedy, “The Royal Family.” Cut to the present and the recent past. David Hare’s “Straight Line Crazy” claims to be about Robert Moses. “Ink” by James Graham claims to be about Rupert Murdoch. Hare and Graham drop enough real names for the audience to be confused into thinking what happens on stage is based on fact. At best, these pieces 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) orchestrated the collaboration between Warhol and Basquiat, an artistic and business deal that the pair initially despised and had to be dragged and kicked and chopped just to to meet. This configuration, although false, creates drama. Warhol makes fun of this talentless young upstart of color. And Basquiat sees Warhol as an aging homosexual. Act 1 is spent watching them argue and not creating much art. The fact that the real Basquiat was hanging out at Warhol’s factory, utterly revered at Andy’s altar and wanting nothing more than to replicate the icon’s faded but still immense fame is left out of this fake concoction. The real Bischofberger arranged a lunch for the two artists and suggested that they collaborate, but Warhol and Basquiat had already begun this collaboration without telling their art dealer. For some reason, McCarten omits any mention of Francesco Clemente, who had collaborated with Warhol and Basquiat before the duo went off to do their own thing.

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Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope in “The Collaboration” (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The Warhol and Basquiat exhibition was in 1984, the year I wrote a street fashion book called “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, who were all very enthusiastic and observant students.

In “The Collaboration,” McCarten takes the much more retro and, frankly, stereotypical take on the artist. McCarten’s Basquiat in Act 1 avoids the limelight – he is too iconoclastic – and resists all attempts by Warhol to photograph or film him. One wonders if this playwright, while researching his subject, ever came across the wealth of photographs that document the very public friendship of Warhol and Basquiat, who evidently enjoyed attracting the attention not only of the press but also of his mentor.

Besides being a poor researcher, McCarten is also not a fiction writer. 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 to return love in Act 2. During intermission, he also teaches Basquiat to love caviar, champagne, and limos. Played by Bettany, Warhol suffers from logorrhea but uses this chronic condition to play therapist to reveal Basquiat’s deepest and darkest secrets. Andy in shrink? If nothing else, this skill is a distinctly new flavor to the Campbell’s Soup legend bio.

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Besides the two wigs he wears, Pope manages to expose some of the truth about Basquiat. While McCarten stuffs old tropes of artistic integrity into his mouth, Pope directs his lines not at Bettany but at the audience. He struts, he prances, he spends much of the second act downstairs gazing at the theatre. If Warhol does not know how to return love, Basquiat never notices it. 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 takes it out on Jean for being a self-absorbed jerk, but in an incredible twist, she goes on to deliver a Hallmark Valentine to his lover, telling us, “He knows he’s af-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 it…scrub it every time I see it. It’s no wonder McCarten doesn’t attach a real female name to this character. She suffers from masochistic delusion. Bischofberger, on the other hand, is very lively and accurately named, which is probably why this character gets the hagiographic treatment.

Kwame Kwei-Armah directs, and while he can’t figure out what’s going on for anyone who knows what really happened between Warhol and Basquiat, he adds a considerable punch to Act 2. As Basquiat paints one of his masterpieces, Warhol finally finds a way to film it. Suddenly, Anna Fleischle’s realistic artist’s studio is flooded with these gigantic, enveloping images from Warhol’s camera. The extended moment says more about the obsessive narcissism of two artists than anything written by McCarten.

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