Broadway Shows


The Collaboration Review
Truth is not only stranger than fiction, it’s often more interesting. Indeed, one hopes the actual relationship between art world titans Andy Warhol and Jean Michel-Basquiat had more depth than is now being depicted in Anthony McCarten’s disappointing bioplay “The Collaboration,” on view at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre under Kwame Kwei-Armah’s workmanlike direction.

Sadly, even the committed work of its very talented stars, a fright-wigged Paul Bettany as the almost alien-like Warhol and a near-manic Jeremy Pope as the “wild child,” drug-addicted Basquiat – both of whom starred in the play’s London production and a yet-to-be-released film version -- cannot completely overcome the banal dialogue presented here.

The show takes place during the pair’s celebrated if troubled collaboration in the mid-1980s, which happened at both Warhol’s and Basquiat’s apartments/studios (nicely designed by Anna Fleischle). Some of the artworks, in which Basquiat essentially overpainted Warholian logos, were eventually exhibited at the then-famous Tony Shafrazi Gallery in 1985 to less than universal acclaim.

Just as the actual poster for that exhibition presented the artists as competing pugilists, the play is presented as a boxing match of sorts. In one corner is Warhol -- who only seems alive with a video camera in his hand -- who repeatedly insists art is just a business, in part to justify his fascination with the Campbell’s soup can and the GE logo and preaching that we will all someday be our own brand.

Meanwhile, Basquiat comes out swinging, proclaiming that art is an expression of rebellion and spiritualism and anyone who doesn’t paint with a brush and colors should not be considered a true artist. Both men’s points are worth contemplating, but one wishes they weren’t made in such a bald-faced way.

Further, as he’s proved in his scripts for the film “Bohemian Rhapsody” (about the rock band Queen) and “The Two Popes,” (about a meeting between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis) as well as the current Broadway musical “A Beautiful Noise” (about pop icon Neil Diamond), McCarten has never met an actual chronology with which he can’t tamper.

It’s an approach that can work when you’re dealing with subjects the audience doesn’t know much about, but as McCarten should have learned with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” playing around with a story and timeline that many in the audience may have lived through is risky business. (For example, the death of Basquiat’s great friend Michael Stewart, which here destroys the men’s relationship, happened years before it does in the show.)

Moreover, the show is filled with too many unnecessary (and arguably well-known) factoids about these men’s lives; for example, Warhol was originally from Pittsburgh and started his career as a commercial illustrator, while Basquiat did briefly attend private school in his native Brooklyn and his Haitian-born father was an accountant. As a result, the piece often feels more like a compendium of Wikipedia entries than a full-blown play.

Perhaps, as well, the work needed more additional characters, especially given the one-dimensional portrayals of Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger (by Erik Jensen) – who made the professional marriage between Warhol and Basquiat – and Basquiat’s angry on-and-off girlfriend Maya (a composite figure), brought to fiery life by the always reliable Krysta Rodriguez.

In fact, it would have been fun to have seen even glimpses of Robert Mapplethorpe, Yoko Ono, Jack Nicholson, Mick Jagger and Princess Gloria von Thurn and Taxis, all of whom are mentioned in a brilliantly performed, slightly acerbic monologue by Bettany that is one of the highpoints of the script.

Sadly, the most interesting person on the Friedman stage is the energetic DJ who spins a Studio 54-worthy 1980s playlist before each act. I’m not sure I’ve ever recommended this plan before, but if you can, “second act” the intermission and leave before the play resumes. It’s the only way you’ll leave the theater satisfied.

By Brian Scott Lipton

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Open/Close Dates
Opening 12/20/2022
Closing 2/5/2023

Theatre Info
Samuel J. Friedman Theatre
261 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036