Broadway Review: THE COLLABORATION (Friedman)

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by Kevin Vavasseur on December 25, 2022

in Theater-New York

THE ART OF MAKING ART

The Collaboration by Anthony McCarten is much more than, well, a collaboration. This riveting performance produced by Manhattan Theatre Club and currently playing at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater is also a conversation, a trip back in time, an art vs. commerce debate, an in-depth character study, a class war and an education.  From the moment the audience enters the theater and is bombarded with eighties dance hits spun by an onstage DJ to the vibrant mix of still shots and film projections of eighties New York on the walls to the kaleidoscope of motorized party lights shining everywhere – we know we’re not in sanitized, corporatized 2022 New York anymore. Or are we? Because McCarten’s thoughtful, specific and dynamic script makes points and observations about life in the eighties that are just as valid today. In visiting the friendship between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat and their contentious collaboration on an ultimately unsuccessful gallery show – McCarten dramatizes their relationship but also uses them as metonymic symbols for a larger discussion between the differing worlds they inhabit. The result being an ambitious, engaging, gripping production that speaks as much to the heart as to the intellect.

Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope

In 1984, art gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger maneuvers to bring the art world’s brightest young star Jean-Michel Basquiat together with established art icon Andy Warhol. Warhol’s commercial illustration based work is not as hot as it once was when now faced with the rise of early eighties, neo-expressionism that Basquiat exemplifies. Both are wary of each other – Warhol is unsure of how to deal with the unruly Basquiat and Basquiat sees little reason to work with Warhol because he’s “over”. Bruno persists until the two men finally have a positive-ish meeting in Warhol’s studio and begin to collaborate. Slow going at first but as they try to work together a symbiotic connection develops as they challenge, answer, provoke and roughly complement each other’s lives and creative journeys. Addressing a gamut of topics from why that brush stroke to the nature of existence– the two men develop a dependency of sorts on each other. When the brutal death of one of Basquiat’s close friends at the hands of the NYPD shockingly occurs, their relationship becomes an act of desperate survival from which one or both men may not survive.

Erik Jensen

At the core of The Collaboration are two rock-solid, deeply committed performances by Paul Bettany as Warhol and Jeremy Pope as Basquiat. Both characterizations are as complex as the men in real-life with Pope luxuriating in the laser-sharp yet somewhat opaque persona of Basquiat and Bettany embracing the jet-set aura of a self-hating guy from Pittsburgh. McCarten’s text careens from the micro to the macro in an instant – discussing the minutia of paint choices or well-meaning patrons to unflinching self-examination and self-recrimination. Because the whole play is basically two men in a room painting, McCarten’s creates drama and vigor with the paint of his words – using the wide flat brush of a housepainter in one moment to the slightest detail brush in the next. Bettany and Pope boldly inhabit all the brush strokes that McCarten gives them and deliver compelling performances of whatever size or intensity is called for, at any given moment.

Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen

Though the play does not cover the entire length of the Warhol/Basquiat friendship, McCarten cleverly incorporates elements from real life (Basquiat’s increasing drug use and Warhol’s unending photography) to suggest where each man landed towards the end of their respective existences. Also, Krysta Rodriguez is funny and moving as Basquiat’s ex-girlfriend Maya and Erik Jensen is very effective as Bruno, the caring gallery owner with a constant eye to the bottom line.

Krysta Rodriguez

The play is gorgeously directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah who finds endless movement and shifts of stage picture within Anna Fleischle’s authentic looking studio and loft sets. There are lengthy sequences of over-lapping, fast-paced dialogue that Kwei-Armah orchestrates clearly while keeping the chaos intact. Projection design by Duncan McLean is impressive and helps expand the world onstage to a sense of space above mundane reality. Of special note is an extended sequence where Warhol is videotaping Basquiat while he paints. As Warhol moves about the space, the view from his camera is projected onto surrounding screens. It’s a beautifully staged and shot sequence that goes a bit meta. When Warhol shoots Basquiat from upstage looking down, what the camera sees behind Basquiat is a darkened audience not another loft wall. This brief self-acknowledgement from the play that it’s a representation of real not actually real speaks to both Warhol’s work of finding abstract within reality and Basquiat’s finding reality within the abstract. It’s a subtle but revelatory touch. 

Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope

The Collaboration is a beautiful production that brings together two men who may initially need each other on some cursory level but eventually develop deep connection and comradeship. It also speaks to the tenuous balance between fame, commerce, art, business and popularity. At a time when more and more people seek fame for fame’s sake, the questions posed by this production couldn’t be more timely. Who knew they could also be art?

Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope

photo credit © Jeremy Daniel, 2022

The Collaboration
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street
ends on January 29, 2023 EXTENDED to February 11, 2023
for tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit Telecharge

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