Caesar meets Cleopatra, Stalin meets Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe meets the Kennedy brothers: Consequential connections all. So, too, is the meeting and eventual partnership arranged by savvy New York gallery owner Bruno Bischofberger (a fine, stolid Erik Jensen) of two popular painters who dominated the 1970s and ’80s art scene: Andy Warhol (Paul Bettany) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Jeremy Pope). They might have been professional rivals or friendly enemies, but in “The Collaboration” by Anthony McCarten (“I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” “The Theory of Everything”), the two artists are articulate and unpredictable individualists. With director Kwame Kwei-Armah at the helm of this Young Vic production, the acting is nothing if not eye-catching.
Pope seems to be everywhere these days, from the Toronto International Film Festival (for “The Inspection”) to the Young Vic, where “The Collaboration” originated. But even on the intimate stage of Manhattan Theatre Club’s Friedman Theater on Broadway, he has both theatrical presence and a personal dynamism that make him impossible to resist.
As Jean-Michel Basquiat, he easily convinces us of the blazing talent of this scrappy street painter, whose work we don’t actually see. “I think I’m better than everybody,” Basquiat boasts, but Pope captures the vulnerability and the youthful breath of innocence behind the bragging. Even the slovenly state of the artist’s far-East-Village studio (courtesy of set designer Anna Fleischle) has a certain childlike quality. “Messy is good,” is his credo. “Messy is real. Messy is life.”
Visually, artistically, emotionally, the chaos is enough to make the fastidious Warhol reflexively recoil. “You’re all spontaneous and wild and so deep and mystical,” Andy says, in the deliciously droll tone that Bettany has adopted to play him. This terse pronouncement may be insightful, but it’s not a compliment.
Andy’s style is the diametric opposite of Jean-Michel’s. “It’s all about just surfaces now,” he says of his own repetitive subjects and flat aspects. “I’m making art that forces you to ignore it, the same way we’re ignoring life.” (Jean-Michel’s response — “That’s one weird theory of art, man” — is right on the money.) Bettany gives a smart physical performance as Warhol (here is a man who knows how to wear a wig) while reaching deep enough into his character to locate an actual heart, if not a soul.
Although the two painters would seem to have absolutely nothing in common, their working relationship proves fruitful. Two years into the project, Jean-Michel and Andy have produced 15 canvases and have become fast friends. In Act Two we find them diligently working together on Number 16 and talking, talking, talking. Despite some offstage events, there’s no conflict, no action, nothing in the least dramatic — but there’s plenty of fascinating shop talk.
We learn, for one thing, that Andy’s monotonous style is rooted in his conviction that big companies are overwhelming our culture and will inevitably take over the world and crush us all. The fear — and the thrill — of that vision are the source of his creativity, the reason for his sour wit and the cause of his paralyzing creative block.
In the beginning of their collaboration, Basquiat is creatively on fire and resents having to work with the older and possibly tapped-out painter. “I’m not here to bring Andy back from the dead,” Jean-Michel protests of their awkward alliance. But as their relationship deepens, Andy teaches him some cold facts about critical success: “You do one thing till you get noticed for it and you don’t stop even when it’s boring you to death.”
It’s hard to call this gushing fountain of clever talk a play. There’s no dramatic shape to it: No plot, no event, no conflict, no danger. But there are two richly drawn characters on stage with plenty to say for themselves.