Theater: “The Collaboration” with Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope
The 1980s were an interesting time in New York. Nightclubs were hot, music was danceable, and Yuppies who wore yellow foulard ties to Wall Street and Madison Avenue offices traveled and spent money like there was no tomorrow (raises hand).
At the same time, there was an underground art scene personified by the likes of Andy Warhol and Haitian-Puerto Rican artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Their strange, symbiotic relationship is the subject of Anthony McCarten’s “The Collaboration” at Manhattan Theater Club.
In Act One, Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jansen), Andy’s art dealer, proposes a “collaboration” between Warhol and the rising young Basquiat. Andy (Paul Bettany) initially balks at the idea but is intrigued by Basquiat’s style. “He works faster than I do,” Andy complains jealously. Once the two artists meet and reconcile their different styles (Basquiat makes paintings, Andy just wants to make videos of Basquiat making paintings), they agree to collaborate.
Act Two picks up steam as Basquiat is traumatized by the brutal beating by police of his friend Michael Stewart, who was caught writing graffiti on a subway train. Andy happens to be in Basquiat’s Lower East Side pad when they learn of Stewart’s death. Basquiat, by then a heroin addict, goes into a drug-infused rage and irrationally blames Andy for the death. This leads to an ugly battle of words and almost comes to blows.
Bettany is spot-on as the whiny fright-wigged Andy who admits he hasn’t picked up a brush in 25 years. He looks in the mirror and cries, “Why am I so white?” The real star is Pope, whose hyperkinetic portrayal of Basquiat reveals the demons that must have lived inside his head.
This what-if play fudges the truth a bit: Andy and Basquiat were actually good friends. While their artistic collaboration was less than successful, they only parted ways when Andy was later accused of using Basquiat as a “mascot.” Basquiat went on to thrive as an international artist—selling one piece for $98 million—but died of a drug overdose in 1988.
In short, “The Collaboration” is an interesting but imperfect play about two 1980s fabled artists. But if you really want a taste of what the ‘80s were like, get to the theater early and hear DJ theoretic spin tunes by Lisa Lisa, The Human League, and Chaka Khan. If the play itself had more of that energy, it would’ve been a true artistic knockout.