A chance reference in “The Andy Warhol Diaries” to a collaboration on a play with Truman Capote led Rob Roth to 59 cassettes and 80 hours’ worth of taped conversation, a decade’s worth of obtaining rights and transcripts and finally “WarholCapote,” a self-described “non-fiction invention” premiering at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. What the resulting text lacks in momentum and tension it delivers in gossipy interest, and eyebrow-raising insights into these seminal 20th century artists keep flaring up. Under Michael Mayer’s direction and starring Stephen Spinella as the Pop artist and Dan Butler as the author-raconteur, the show certainly deserves to be famous far longer than Warhol’s proclaimed 15 minutes.
Roth, who directed Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast,” resists any temptation to ratchet up excitement through fictionalizing. Lifting, rearranging and splicing with the deftness of a CIA technician, he cobbles together years of confrontations — ranging from art and sex to the politics of rehab and the superiority of shoes over boots — and places them in iconic New York City locales and the men’s private sanctums, independent of strict chronology.
What results is a sense of planets irresistibly brought into the same orbit. They began in the 1950s as stalker and prey, when an obsessed Warhol (“I admire people who do well with words… Truman was a magic person”) bombarded the novelist with daily fan letters until warned off by Capote’s mom. By the time they reconnect in 1978 at Studio 54, where “WarholCapote” begins, Andy is the iconic Campbell’s Soup-print innovator, increasingly bewildered by his success. Himself befuddled by stimulants, Truman struggles to finish magnum opus “Answered Prayers” and sees in Andy… What? A fellow superstar? A peerless dish-sharer? We hear about Allan Carr’s weight and Mick Jagger’s dancing style, and wonder where they’re going with all this, and why.
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The decision to collaborate on a Broadway play doesn’t exactly turn Andy and Truman into Kaufman and Hart. They somehow assume that something worth watching will emerge, phoenix-like, from their random chatter and just let ‘er rip. Though the A.R.T. event only runs 80 minutes, the apparently-intended effect resembles that of Warhol’s 3½ hour “Chelsea Girls,” a behavior orgy which starts nowhere in particular, seems to run in place and ends when the tape runs out. “I don’t think plot is important,” reveals Andy, and though Truman opines “every act of art is the act of solving a mystery,” “WarholCapote” is as little interested in literalizing that solution as was “Murder By Death,” Capote’s screen acting debut.
It’s a risky strategy, given past confrontations with a firmer shape and higher stakes like “Frost/Nixon,” or even “My Dinner With Andre.” But to the extent these public men’s private lives interest you, Mayer’s actors do their considerable best to fill them out. Butler (a late-inning substitution for Leslie Jordan) has to battle our memories of endless Johnny Carson appearances and nails it all: the studied hauteur, self-aggrandizement, airy gestures, pronounced lisp and nyah-nyah delivery. More closely resembling the burly Jackson Pollock, Butler nevertheless captures a pathos (“Would you call me up?….I didn’t think you’d call me”) one might not have perceived in the real Capote’s sad, final days.
Decked in albino moptop and specs, Spinella’s challenge is to make plausible this world-famous monument, almost, who retains wide-eyed innocence and a ceaseless cascade of gush: “Oh, great. That’s terrific… Isn’t it fascinating? That’s so great.” Knowing there’s much more bubbling beneath the gee-willikers surface (“When you’re really really involved with something you’re usually thinking about something else”), Spinella conveys a simple, anguished soul trying to figure out, amidst nattering trivia, his place in the world. His explanation of how getting shot in ’68 at The Factory took the stuffing out of him is the show’s emotional high point, almost its 11 o’clock number and delicately, flawlessly delivered.
Doubtless inspired by the recordings, Mayer establishes an engaging rhythm while inviting us to linger on key moments as if this were indeed a traditional play, and has designer Stanley A. Meyer envelop his two swivel chairs with enough giant cassette-tape swirls to make the Memorex Corporation swoon. Darrel Maloney’s projections add visual interest and take us back to the glory days of Pop Art and “In Cold Blood,” which percolate in our mind even if the fellows don’t go there much while dissecting Liza’s promiscuity and Humphrey Bogart’s member.