At the start of the second half of Anthony McCarten’s art-world bio-drama “The Collaboration,” the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s agent finds himself alone on the scrappy sofa of Basquiat’s New York City studio — and unearths a syringe. A frown floods the agent’s face. The moment lands because it’s a warning that Basquiat is using again but, more importantly and perilously late, it’s the play’s first genuinely theatrical moment: We finally sense something without dialogue instructing us. The show has a wearying degree of tell-don’t-show, and even strong performances, including turns by Jeremy Pope as Basquiat and Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol, can’t stop it feeling more bio than drama.
The first act is a set-up, in every sense. Not only is Bruno Bischofberger (nicely determined Alec Newman) the agent for Basquiat, but he also represents Warhol and, in successive scenes, he lies to each of them about their supposed admiration of one other. He blows smoke up them both to persuade them to work together, allegedly to their mutual benefit, to create a show that will not just be “two giants coming together,” but “the most exciting show in the history of contemporary art.”
Lean, loose-limbed, young Basquiat and a generation older, even leaner, poised and impressively aloof Warhol initially dismiss the idea, but given the play’s title, there’s zero doubt about whether it will happen. In place of tension, McCarten gives us two carefully delineated rivals ceaselessly delivering biographical exposition via bon mots about their own and each other’s art and attitudes, with next to no dramatic necessity.
But the trouble with such smart-mouthed lines — “All artists with wit should be listened to; all gloomy bastards should be clubbed to death,” or “I make art because I can’t make shoes,” or “I broke down a wall between business and art” — is that, quotable though they are, they move nothing forward.
Aided by Duncan McLean’s projections, designer Anna Fleischle creates strongly atmospheric Manhattan galleries and studio spaces that give free rein to the artists whom McCarten constantly places in opposition to one another. Where Warhol is in denial of his history, Basquiat celebrates his; Warhol is a hygiene freak, Basquiat lives in chaos; and so forth.
The less schematic second half raises the stakes, with Basquiat having witnessed cops viciously beating a Black friend on the street. Crucially, this happens offstage, but the experience and its aftermath powerfully affect and determine the outcome of Basquiat and Warhol’s already tricky relationship.
McCarten builds upon the incident, via an all-too-expedient appearance by an ex-girlfriend (Sofia Barclay), to energize the men’s growing symbiosis. That connection, though, is wrecked by Warhol’s need to film everything rather than truly involve himself in making art.
But because the spur to the inevitable climactic row occurs offstage, the conflict itself lacks dramatic weight and dynamism. And McCarten and his director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, are better at dialogue than the physical realization of Basquiat’s understandable fury.
None of this is the fault of the cast. Both Pope and Bettany are memorably focused delivering matched, opposed performances far beyond mere impersonation, with arresting realizations of differently damaged characters that build to equally emotional reveals.
In the Tony-winning, Rothko-vs-the new-generation play “Red,” John Logan and director Michael Grandage proved that you can, with the right approach, actually make drama about watching paint dry. But for all the increasingly charged debate on display here, McCarten and Kwei-Armah’s presentation of the vitality and value of art never approaches that dramatic pitch.
From “The Theory of Everything” to “The Two Popes” via “The Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” bio-dramas are McCarten’s stock-in-trade. He and the same cast and director are already at work on a movie of “The Collaboration,” in which the story might well work better: Being able to show the whole story on screen could bring this material to life.
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