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‘The Collaboration,’ Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope are Brilliant as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat

 (L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Whether you are an art aficionado, fan or critic, The Collaboration, by Anthony McCarten about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s joint effort to produce paintings together is an astonishing, dynamic production. Starring Paul Bettany (an Inspector Calls-West End) and Jeremy Pope (Choir Boy) and directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, the two-act play currently runs at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, extended until 5 February. This production which hails from the Young Vic Theatre is not to be missed.

Warhol’s and Basquiat’s alliance was an unusual meld for both artists, who were at different points in their careers and who, according to McCarten in the first act, were a thesis/antithesis in their personal lives, perspectives and personalities. Because Warhol and Basquiat are icons who helped transform the art world as unique and indelible fixtures in their own right, The Collaboration is of seminal importance. Not only does the work identify aspects of the artists’ individual and collective graces, it also inspires further exploration into the lives of these individuals and their synergistic and productive relationship.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Bettany and Pope’s prodigious acting skills and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s superb direction in helping them tease out memorable details of emotion, gesture and nuance allow the actors to live and breathe their characters onstage. Bettany and Pope are a pleasure to watch in their authenticity as their portrayals by the second act lift toward the heavens into the phenomenal. They inhabit Warhol and Basquiat with vulnerability and humanity. So comfortably do they don the artists’ ethos, one forgets the play is a stylization and evocation of two mythic figures who attained immortality in spite of themselves.

Indeed, the production takes us on a fantastic journey with intermittent elements of realism that all the more enhance the beauty and tragedy of these men, whose lives were cut short. Though Andy Warhol lived to be 58 years-old, Jean-Michel died of an overdose of heroin at twenty-seven. At the conclusion McCarten suggests that their individual and collective work and their ability to inspire and whimsically play off one another are an irrevocable, immutable and timeless gift to all of us.

 Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

The award-winning playwright (known for films The Theory of Everything {2014) Two Popes {2020} and the book writer of A Beautiful Noise) grapples with revealing their combined efforts in the short period of time they worked together. Indeed, the cultural mystique and reputation that precedes these men sometimes gets in the way. The more one knows about Warhol and Basquiat, the more frustrated one may become with McCarten’s presentation of their relationship, whose closeness is developed in filmed events of Bettany and Pope doing activities together, projected on the backstage wall and side walls during the intermission between Act I and Act II. Thus, if one leaves to get a drink or take a trip to the bathroom, the vital aspects of how Warhol and Basquiat’s relationship develops and how the men bond over time will be missed.

McCarten first introduces us to Warhol who visits the gallery of Bruno Bischofberger (Erik Jensen’s accent at times trips over itself). There, Andy inspects Basquiat’s paintings as Bruno attempts to sell him on his idea of a collaboration. Though Bruno makes it seem that Basquiat is “dying” to work with Warhol, we discover this isn’t the case. Bruno is massaging Andy’s ego. In his exchange with Bruno, Andy views 24 of Basquiat’s paintings which unfortunately we never see. Bettany looks out into the audience to “view” Basquiat’s work, as we imagine what Andy sees and watch his expressions of shock, excitement, amazement and jealousy, all in Warhol’s inimitable stylistic phrasing and being. Bettany captures the characteristic Warhol exclamations “gee,” “oh,” and retains enough of the soft spoken and demur air that we’ve seen in films of Andy Warhol that bring us toward acceptance of his portrayal, which deepens as the play embodies their philosophical tension working together.

Paul Bettany in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Paul Bettany in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Bruno is the catalyst for their collaboration. And it is Bruno who comes up with the concept of how to market the exhibition of their works with a poster of both in boxing shorts with Jean-Michel’s chest exposed and Andy’s chest covered in a black T-shirt, as they hold up their boxing gloves ready for their match up of paintings on Mercer Street in New York City.

To persuade a reluctant Andy, Bruno uses flattery and guilt. He chides the avid filmmaker that he hasn’t picked up a brush in years. When Andy shrugs off Bruno’s flattery with self-deprecation that his reputation “is in tatters,” and “no one loves him any more,” Bruno wisely counters Andy’s defense and makes him think. Bruno suggests that it is Andy who doesn’t return the love given to him, an idea that intrigues Andy because it divulges arcane, inner knowledge about his soul which may be accurate. Bruno has hooked Andy toward working with Jean-Michel. But he is completely drawn in when Andy realizes that this is a golden opportunity to employ his skills as a filmmaker and interviewer. He will film their collaboration and record it for posterity.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

After Andy leaves Bruno’s gallery, Basquiat keeps his appointment with Bruno and we see how the art dealer works his persuasion to lure Jean-Michel to accept Andy as an artist-partner. Like Andy, Jean-Michel is not convinced. In fact, he is nonplussed at the idea of painting with a world renowned artist and is suspicious and recalcitrant, suggesting that Andy is mechanistic and repetitive and his prints lack soul. With the same push-pull, parry and thrust that he experienced with Andy, Bruno cajoles and uses reverse psychology on Jean-Michel. He is not willing to take “no” for an answer, though Jean-Michel accuses him of exploitation when Bruno suggests the project is monumental and will have “art lovers lined up from the gallery door to JFK.”

(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Bruno stirs Jean-Michel on collaborating with Andy, using flattery and the unction that Andy really wants to work with Jean-Michael, though we have just witnessed that this is not true. Jean-Michel states he has nothing to say to Andy because they don’t “speak the same languages,” and he is not here to “bring Andy back from the dead.” Bruno, a master of human nature who pings Jean-Michel’s underlying vanity and competitiveness, finally reels him in with the discovery that Andy thinks Jean-Michel is “a threat to his entire understanding of art.”

The humor in both artist’s exchanges with the art dealer is organic, and the presentation of Bettany’s Warhol and Pope’s Basquiat are strikingly similar in their susceptibility to compliments, their egotism, their underlying insecurity with arrogance (Basquiat) and self-disdain (Warhol). As we watch the apparent tensions unfold, it is clear that Warhol and Basquiat may be sparring partners, but theirs is a match that is too coherent and intuitive not to work. Of course the idea that this will bring in tons of cash and, as Basquiat suggests, the bankers will be happy, emphasizes the themes of art’s pure expression versus art exploitation, and art as a business versus the pleasure and necessity to create art which drives both Andy and Basquiat. Meanwhile, as the inveterate money-minded dealer, Bruno encourages this promotional collaboration to harness their ambition and turn it into profits.

 Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

During Andy’s and Jean-Michel’s individual exchanges with Bruno dueling for advantage, themes and details in the artists’ lives surface. Andy’s mention of Valerie Solonas’ assassination attempt in 1968 that nearly took his life and caused him to look over his shoulder, expecting to be killed again is poignant and humanizing. The humanizing details continue throughout both acts and help to inform our understanding of the similarities between Warhol and Basquiat in their childhood experiences, for both were influenced by their mothers toward art, drawing and painting.

After the prologue with Bruno, the first act predominately takes place in Andy’s studio as the artists become familiar with each other, discuss their viewpoints, the idea of branding, what Andy’s art attempts and what Jean-Michel attempts with his art. Finally, they agree about what to paint and Andy sneaks in his filming as Jean-Michel paints and answers Andy’s questions. By the second act which takes place in Jean-Michel’s loft/studio/apartment, both artists have become close revealed in the film projections during intermission. At a crucial point in the second act and at Jean-Michel’s suggestion, they challenge each other good naturedly to take off their shirts and expose their wounds.

Erik Jensen in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Erik Jensen in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

It is a profound, humbling, bonding act. The icons are human and terribly vulnerable. We see Jean-Michel’s extensive surgical scar where he was injured, run over by a car. He had to recuperate for a long time, a trial which his mother got him through when he was 7-years-old by encouraging him to look at Grey’s Anatomy and draw what he saw to inspire his healing process. And we see Andy’s corset which he must wear to hold his organs in place and above it the long, disfiguring scars criss-crossing his torso, where the surgeons had worked feverishly to save his life from Valerie’s bullet which she shot into him at point blank range.

The second act evolves into an explosion of love and rancor between the two artists. When former girlfriend Maya (Krysta Rodriguez) comes to Jean-Michel’s place to settle up a financial arrangement with Jean-Michael, Andy tells her about their mutual friend Michael Stewart who is in a coma, beaten unrecognizable by cops because he was painting graffiti. Maya returns with the news of Michael’s death and pleads with Basquiat to go to the lawyer’s office with her to give testimony proving the cops murdered Michael. Basquiat refuses. Instead, he gives her the Polaroids of Michael’s mutilated face and body.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Erik Jensen in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

Jeremy Pope’s Basquiat transforms into raw nerve endings of emotion in a heart wrenching explanation why he can’t go to the lawyer’s office. The jitters, the nerves, the frenetic energy that need to be displaced because of Jean-Michel’s painful identification with Michael as a fellow sufferer who has just passed is Jeremy Pope’s tour de force throughout the rest of the act.

Basquiat reminds Maya and Andy of the heartless reality of Black racism and oppression evidenced in police brutality against Michael. The spirit of hate and bigotry murdered Michael and that same spirit is ranging to murder him, as he, too, painted graffiti at one point early in his career. Pope conveys Basquiat’s tortured grief at the loss of his beautiful friend. He is torn between wanting to help the Stewart family and preserve his own life and destiny. When Basquiat accuses Andy of indirectly killing Michael, who he was trying to heal with his painting, not understanding, Andy is shocked at Basquiat’s recriminations.

Krysta Rodriguez in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Krysta Rodriguez in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

McCarten reveals what painting means to Basquiat and how he perceives art’s power in this tremendous scene that hearkens back to Basquiat’s childhood when he encouraged his own healing by drawing “healthy” organs from illustrations in Grey’s Anatomy. Painting is his way of controlling, resurrecting life, defining power constructs and capturing racism symbolically to effect its change. When Basquiat tries to evoke healing for Michael spiritually, Andy’s commercial, material filming destroys the spiritual power to heal his friend who dies. Thus, for Basquiat painting is totemic and primal, sacred and holy while Andy, tortured by Basquiat’s questions reveals that art to him is an escape from self-loathing into an austere identity which only momentarily eradicates the deformed ugliness he is.

Ironically, at the core of their art, MarCarten suggests they symbolize and do different things. Andy films/records history to understand the creative process and see humanity, while never accepting his own. Basquiat employs the creative process to heal himself and others. One process is not better than the other, nor are they mutually exclusive. As their “collaboration” proves, both are integral to each other. Combined, they establish the inherent beauty and singularity of both.

(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

This incredible scene extends into a dance between Andy and Jean-Michel who pushes Andy to validate and reveal himself as he pretends to film him, though Basquiat has destroyed all of Andy’s films of their collaboration. Once again Bettany’s Warhol and Pope’s Basquiat challenge each other in a rivalry that can never be equal because Andy is not Black. Though he suffers discrimination because he is gay, their bond has limitations. Andy leaves then comes back apologetically though Basquiat has been cruel to him. And it is in the last minutes of the play that there is a touching reconciliation. The inevitability of their lasting artistic achievement is brought to the fore.

To effect the characters, the director’s vision and the creative team’s execution of it works well. Warhol’s and Basquiat’s wigs thanks to Karicean “Karen” Dick & Carol Robinson and Anna Fleischle’s costuming are on-point. Fleischle’s minimalist scenic design of white walls serves to intimate Bischofberger’s gallery, Warhol’s Studio on Broadway and Union Square, and Basquiat’s loft apartment/studio on Great Jones Street. Props and paintings and works and furniture are added and taken away accordingly. Basquiat’s digs in the second act require the greatest set-up, as he lives in cluttered disarray, unlike Andy’s studio which is neat, clean and “almost sterile.”

Krysta Rodriguez, Jeremy Pope in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
Krysta Rodriguez, Jeremy Pope in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

The second act reveals magnificent writing and magnificent acting. Throughout the concept of modern arts’ evanescence, that “everyone thinks they can do it,” and discussions of art critics attempting to nail down their work then toss it aside, are fascinating and richly profound. That both men were exploited and learned to then exploit themselves to become their own business models has currency for us today. Of course they became masters at self-exploitation. Considering that Basquiat’s brilliant light shined momentarily to leave a massive body of work and Warhol’s frenetic energy blasted an even more massive collection, their painting together was genius.

Because Warhol and Basquiat have been branded with their own mythology and entrepreneurship, understanding who they were, understanding their relationship remains elusive. Such comprehension cannot be gleaned in one play, nor should one expect to. However, McCarten creates a masterwork that Bettany and Pope use as a jumping off point to portray the divine and weak in both characters. They are stunning, beautiful, transcendent. Thus, to describe The Collaboration as a “biodrama,” as some critics have done, is wholly inadequate. Rather the play is McCarten’s vision enhanced by Kwame Kwei-Armah’s sensitive and profound acknowledgement of two artistic geniuses who collided in the tension of trying to do the impossible. And as a result of this collision, they formed something new. They integrated their own styles of art in these partnership paintings that embodied resonating themes at the core of their own lives.

(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in 'The Collaboration' (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)
(L to R): Jeremy Pope, Paul Bettany in The Collaboration (courtesy of Jeremy Daniel)

As the final sardonic irony at the play’s conclusion, while Bettany’s Warhol and Pope’s Jean-Michel paint into immortality, we hear the voice of an auctioneer, representative of the art world now on steroids, directional from what it was like when they were alive in the 1980s. Their work together is valued in the multi-millions, the irrevocable exploitation of both.

Kudos to Ben Stanton’s lighting design, Emma Laxton’s sound design, Duncan McLean’s projection design and Ayanna Witter-Johnson’s original music. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2022-23-season/the-collaboration/

‘Coal Country’ is Amazing

(L to R): Ezra Knight, Carl Palmer, Michael Laurence, Thomas Kopache in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

When money and wealth become more important than the lives of others, that is the time to write a play with powerful, sonorous music. Oh, not to uplift the CEOs who collect the millions like Don Blankenship of Massey owned Performance Coal Company. No. The play should uplift and memorialize the ones who die because of that CEO’s greed, selfishness and refusal to accept accountability for what many have called murder. Above all the play must repudiate the wealthCy’s Puritan assertions that money and power make right. They don’t. Not now, not ever.

(L to R): Carl Palmer, Erza Knight, Thomas Kopache in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

Coal Country is a docu-drama with incredibly relevant themes for us today. The riveting, masterful work written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen with original music by Steve Earle in a fabulous encore presentation by Audible and the Public Theater seems more impactful each time it is presented. We can never get enough of this exceptionally performed, shining work which runs at the Cherry Lane Theatre until 17 of April.

Mary Bacon in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

Though the worst of human nature asserts its primacy, poignant, moving stories like those in Coal Country are timeless in revealing that love despite tragedy culturally work us toward enlightenment. The voices of those who have been wrongfully snuffed out can resonate with meaning. This is especially so when fine artists like Blank, Jensen, Earle and superb performers effect those voices to channel the great moral imperative. What is good, what is true, what is valuable is never lost. It lives on.

Ezra Knight in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

The themes which the playwrights and songwriter ring out in Coal Country focus on the devastating catastrophe known as the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010, which cost 29 West Virginians their lives. Through family eye-witness accounts cobbled together in a tapestry of poetic beauty, vitality and grace, we learn the facts about the huge machine that operated over- capacity 24/7 on the long wall, sheering off the finest, most valuable coal so Blakenship could get his contract percentage of the mine’s earnings of $650,000 a day.

(L to R): Michael Laurence, Thomas Kopache in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

We learn through the accounts of union miners like Tommy (Michael Laurence), Gary (Thomas Kopache), and “Goose” (Joe Jung), how and why government inspectors never found the broken systems that allowed low oxygen levels to increase the build-up of methane gases and thick coal dust that caused the massive explosion. As the experienced miners relate how the broken sprinklers ineffectively doused the sparks created in machine operations that ignited the coal dust and methane behind the long wall, the final picture of egregious negligence and rapacious lust for money clarifies in the blood of innocents merged with the blood of family bonds.

Steve Earle in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

Tommy, Laurence and Gary discuss how the power of the union to protect and respect the miners’ rights in the past has been subverted by the CEO and company, and government de-regulation. The owners who bought the mine hired a large percentage of non-union men, who didn’t dare “speak up,” to government inspectors and the FBI about extremely unsafe conditions in the mine. They feared reprisals. The question of payoffs arises and dead ends. We learn how those miners who did “say something” were warned and ignored. Miners were rendered voiceless against the inevitability of their deaths, because Blankenship was on a mission. No one was going to stop him.

Amelia Campbell, Michael Laurence, Carl Palmer in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

As families identify bodies on blankets on the gravel, some collapse. Roosevelt (Ezra Knight) who identifies his father, who appears to be “asleep,” remains calm until his mother comes. They weep together. As others express outrage, the families of four missing men wait to hear whether or not their loved ones cheated death. Finally, the wait is over. None make it out. Tommy, who loses his son, his nephew and his father, waits to spill the news, overcome with pain.

Amelia Campbell, Carl Palmer in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

Judy (Deidre Madigan), a doctor who lost her brother in the catastrophe rides a roller coaster of emotional expectation. First, she believes her brother died. Then she believes he found refuge. Then, all is finality. She describes that she feels she is an outsider because of her socioeconomic status. But emotion and love transcend economics; she is one of them. Her brother is dead and though the medical examiner tells her not to, she insists on seeing his remains. It is ironic that even her medical background does not prepare her for what the mine did to him. It is beyond calculation. In pieces, her brother is without human form.

(L to R): Michael Laurence, Mary Bacon, Deirdre Madigan, Kym Gomes, Carl Palmer in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

One by one seven family members tell their story of a simple, satisfying life before the catastrophe in a community that mined for generations. Indeed, the mountain supported and nurtured them until it was bought over by Massey Energy and a new CEO came to town. We learn of the loving relationships between Mindi (Amelia Campbell) and Goose, and Patti (Mary Bacon) and Big Greg who dies leaving Little Greg traumatized by the loss of his dad and Patti when he is taken away from her. And interspersed with their stories, Steve Earle’s country ballads lyrical and poignant drive home the resonance of their love and remembrances of their dear ones. They live in his songs and echo in the actors’ mesmerizing performances.

(L to R): Michael Laurence, Amelia Campbell, Carl Palmer, Mary Bacon, Ezra Knight, Deirdre Madigan, Thomas Kopache, Steve Earle in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

Blank and Jensen (the husband-wife team who created The Exonerated), choose to present this dynamic piece as a flashback after Earle (playing guitar), opens with two songs that set the themes: “John Henry,” and Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Cleverly, the action begins in the courtroom at the end of Don Blakenship’s trial as Judge Berger (Kym Gomes), states they cannot read their “Victim Impact Statements.” What family could never speak in court, they relate to the court of public opinion (the audience who sees this play).

(L to R): Michael Laurence, Mary Bacon, Ezra Knight, Thomas Kopache, Steve Earle, Amelia Campbell, Deirdre Madigan, Carl Palmer in Coal Country (Joan Marcus)

The flashback comes full circle back to the court, so the audience hears Blankenship only gets one year in jail and a fine of $250,000. Arrogantly, Blankenship uses that money to run Ads and create pamphlets in which he characterizes himself as the victim of government as a “political prisoner.” Nevertheless, in final, moving encomiums, each family member details how they remember their loved ones who live on in their hearts and in this production which has called. out to music the names of all who died in the UBB mine explosion.

With minimalist but trenchant symbolic Scenic Design (Richard Hoover), effective Lighting Design (David Lander), Sound Design (Darron L West) and Costume Design (Jessica Jahn), Coal Country is an amazing revival. It is profound and memorable in scope and power. Don’t miss it this time around. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.cherrylanetheatre.org/coal-country

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