Review: Conversation and Conflict, as Warhol Meets Basquiat

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LONDON — Opposite art world titans attract in “The Collaboration,” a new play that opened Thursday at the Young Vic Theater here. Chronicling the creative partnership between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat during the 1980s, Anthony McCarten’s play offers bravura performances from Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope as the two cultural icons.

And if the writing isn’t fully the equal of its star turns, well, a film version of this play is already planned. A movie should give McCarten the opportunity to sharpen a script that, as of now, only begins to deliver on its promise in the second act.

This writer’s track record with biopics certainly bodes well for Bettany and Pope when they transfer to the screen: The movies McCarten wrote about Stephen Hawking (“The Theory of Everything”), Winston Churchill (“The Darkest Hour”) and Freddie Mercury (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) brought Oscar wins for each of their leading men. His 2019 film, “The Two Popes,” earned nominations for the co-stars Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins and is the closest of those movies in structure to “The Collaboration.”

Like that film, with his new play McCarten imagines a duo’s conversations and conflicts. At the beginning, Bettany’s lean, languid Warhol isn’t sure about the commingling of talent that the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (an excitable Alec Newman) has in mind for him and Basquiat: a joint exhibition to decide which of the two is the world’s greatest artist. Bischofberger has an eye on publicity and regards painters, he says, as boxers.

“Gee,” Warhol objects to the gallerist, “you make it sound so macho, like a contest.” Pope’s initially indrawn, pouty Basquiat, 30 years Warhol’s junior, isn’t any more certain that he wants to be part of a double act: “He’s old hat. Does anyone really care about Warhol now?” One man traffics in brands and pop culture iconography (we see Warhol’s signature Marilyn Monroes on the walls of Anna Fleischle’s flexible, white-walled set), the other sees logos as the enemy. Art, Basquiat maintains, “has to have a purpose.”

The material follows a dramatically predictable course from mutual wariness to admiration, leading eventually to love. In fact, that very word is voiced in the penultimate line. Dismissive of Warhol’s attraction to surfaces at the expense of substance, Basquiat comes to adore him as a protective rival turned father figure, of sorts.

“I hope you don’t die, Jean,” Warhol cautions, insisting that the addiction-prone Basquiat clean up his act. The younger artist’s reply is to insist on his own immortality, unaware, of course, that both men would die not long after, within 18 months of each other. When they do actually collaborate — on a sequence of paintings — it’s given surprisingly little stage time; you miss the specific attention to the artistic process that fueled a play like John Logan’s Tony-winning “Red,” about Mark Rothko.

The director Kwame Kwei-Armah gets up close and personal with Warhol and Basquiat as the duo move beyond some fairly labored exposition (like when Basquiat, on cue, details his Haitian-Puerto Rican parentage) to achieve real power. The two actors manage to find something primal beyond the boilerplate writing.

Pope, an Emmy and two-time Tony Award nominee, fills with fury as we see Basquiat at work on “Defacement (The Death of Michael Stewart),” a painting created in response to the police brutality that resulted in the death of a young graffiti artist in 1983. The canvas inevitably chimes with the Black Lives Matter movement Basquiat never got to see, and lends “The Collaboration” a wrenching topicality.

A springy, restless stage presence, that sweet-faced actor communicates the heightened edginess of a man hurtling toward disaster. It’s a shame, therefore, that the belated arrival into the play of Basquiat’s girlfriend Maya (Sofia Barclay) seems perfunctory, as if McCarten weren’t sure quite how to broaden the story beyond the artist duo.

Bettany, in turn, is a marvel in his first stage role in several decades. The Englishman, a longtime U.S. resident, has starred in Marvel movies and recently impressed as a forbidding Duke of Argyll in the BBC TV show “A Very British Scandal,” which will come to the United States in April.

A figure of white-wigged insouciance still reeling from having been shot by Valerie Solanas some years before the play starts, this Warhol reveals an insecurity and disgust that take the part well beyond caricature. Survival, you sense, is no less precarious for him than it is for Basquiat. The two legends are hellbent on self-laceration, reminding us that, no matter how great our cultural legacy, we’re all mortal.

The Collaboration.
Through April 2 at the Young Vic in London; youngvic.org.

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