New York Theater Workshop’s season opener, Anne Bogart’s “Culture of Desire,” comes in at an hour and a half. So much for the good news. The bad is that this works out to approximately an hour per idea. Pretentiousness and whimsy may be the aesthetic equivalents of oil and water; they mix very crudely in this tepid satire of our crassly commercial society, as seen through the prism of artist and legendary oddball Andy Warhol’s life.
Theatrical adventurer Bogart’s concept, which piques the interest with its very strangeness, is to plop Warhol into the roadmap of Dante’s “Inferno.” The show begins with a voiceover of Dante’s famous opening lines: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in a dark wood, the right road lost…” Warhol scuttles onstage, played for whatever reason by an actress, Kelly Maurer, and is promptly shot (by Valerie Solanas, in 1968, as you may recall).
Enter Diana Vreeland (played for whatever reason by an actor), who serves as Warhol’s Virgil, guiding him through a wacky fantasia that begins with Vreeland giving a brief comic history of the human impulse to acquire. From here the show proceeds to go in circles in ways that surely weren’t all intentional.
The artist whose work famously fetishized such products as Campbell’s soup, Brillo pad boxes and Marilyn Monroe (all present here, along with, less explicably, Shirley Temple) is an apt enough symbol for an American populace in thrall to acquisition. But Bogart doesn’t use him to explore her conception with any depth or subtlety.
Both imagery — the characters in this inferno reel around in shopping carts carrying silver shopping bags — and text make a single tiresome point repeatedly: American culture has been overrun by the language of consumption and debased by the equation of self-worth with possessions and superficial beauty.
Well, maybe, but what’s new, and so what? I’d rather spend an hour and a half in Barneys — or indeed even Kmart — than be mocked at equal length for possessing the urge to do so. Bogart’s text doesn’t get at the roots of where these impulses sprang from, how they grew, or what price they exact on the psyche. A few passages, culled from Warhol’s own words, point up the artist’s rather sad self-image, but that’s as far as “Culture of Desire” goes toward psychological or sociological analysis.
A large portion of the text consists of litanies of one sort or another: a litany of beauty products, a litany of product names (“I Can’t Believe It’s a Girdle, Rice a Roni, Tab, Spam…”), a litany of TV ad blurbs and slogans (“Order now!” “As seen on TV!” “These prices areinsane!”), a litany of famous supermarket names (“Dr. Pepper, Sara Lee, Betty Crocker…”). The style is doubtless intended to mimic Warhol’s own use of repetitive imagery, but to mimic an artist’s style is not the same as illuminating it or commenting upon it. (And what on earth does the “Habanera” from “Carmen” have to do with any of this?)
Maurer only rarely apes Warhol’s famously affectless persona, presenting him instead as a goofy kid. The rest of the performers simply spout and preen as needed under Mimi Jordan Sherin’s mostly blazing white lights on Neil Patel’s superstore-shelf set.
The show’s final litany is one of questions, beginning and ending with these two: “What are you looking at?” and “Are you deriving pleasure from it?” To which one’s answers are “God knows” and “God, no.”