LONDON — Reverse artwork world titans entice in “The Collaboration,” a brand new play that opened Thursday on the Younger Vic Theater right here. Chronicling the artistic partnership between Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat through the Eighties, Anthony McCarten’s play provides bravura performances from Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope as the 2 cultural icons.
And if the writing isn’t absolutely the equal of its star turns, nicely, a movie model of this play is already planned. A film ought to give McCarten the chance to sharpen a script that, as of now, solely begins to ship on its promise within the second act.
This author’s observe document with biopics definitely bodes nicely for Bettany and Pope once they switch to the display screen: The films McCarten wrote about Stephen Hawking (“The Theory of Everything”), Winston Churchill (“The Darkest Hour”) and Freddie Mercury (“Bohemian Rhapsody”) introduced Oscar wins for every of their main males. His 2019 movie, “The Two Popes,” earned nominations for the co-stars Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins and is the closest of these films in construction to “The Collaboration.”
Like that movie, together with his new play McCarten imagines a duo’s conversations and conflicts. In the beginning, Bettany’s lean, languid Warhol isn’t certain concerning the commingling of expertise that the Swiss artwork supplier Bruno Bischofberger (an excitable Alec Newman) has in thoughts for him and Basquiat: a joint exhibition to resolve which of the 2 is the world’s biggest artist. Bischofberger has a watch on publicity and regards painters, he says, as boxers.
“Gee,” Warhol objects to the gallerist, “you make it sound so macho, like a contest.” Pope’s initially indrawn, pouty Basquiat, 30 years Warhol’s junior, isn’t any extra sure that he desires to be a part of a double act: “He’s outdated hat. Does anybody actually care about Warhol now?” One man traffics in manufacturers and popular culture iconography (we see Warhol’s signature Marilyn Monroes on the partitions of Anna Fleischle’s versatile, white-walled set), the opposite sees logos because the enemy. Artwork, Basquiat maintains, “has to have a goal.”
The fabric follows a dramatically predictable course from mutual wariness to admiration, main finally to like. In actual fact, that very phrase is voiced within the penultimate line. Dismissive of Warhol’s attraction to surfaces on the expense of substance, Basquiat involves adore him as a protecting rival turned father determine, of kinds.
“I hope you don’t die, Jean,” Warhol cautions, insisting that the addiction-prone Basquiat clear up his act. The youthful artist’s reply is to insist on his personal immortality, unaware, after all, that each males would die not lengthy after, inside 18 months of one another. Once they do really collaborate — on a sequence of work — it’s given surprisingly little stage time; you miss the precise consideration to the inventive course of that fueled a play like John Logan’s Tony-winning “Red,” about Mark Rothko.
The director Kwame Kwei-Armah will get up shut and private with Warhol and Basquiat because the duo transfer past some pretty labored exposition (like when Basquiat, on cue, particulars his Haitian-Puerto Rican parentage) to realize actual energy. The 2 actors handle to search out one thing primal past the boilerplate writing.
Pope, an Emmy and two-time Tony Award nominee, fills with fury as we see Basquiat at work on “Defacement (The Loss of life of Michael Stewart),” a portray created in response to the police brutality that resulted in the death of a young graffiti artist in 1983. The canvas inevitably chimes with the Black Lives Matter motion Basquiat by no means acquired to see, and lends “The Collaboration” a wrenching topicality.
A springy, stressed stage presence, that sweet-faced actor communicates the heightened edginess of a person hurtling towards catastrophe. It’s a disgrace, due to this fact, that the belated arrival into the play of Basquiat’s girlfriend Maya (Sofia Barclay) appears perfunctory, as if McCarten weren’t certain fairly broaden the story past the artist duo.
Bettany, in flip, is a marvel in his first stage function in a number of a long time. The Englishman, a longtime U.S. resident, has starred in Marvel films and not too long ago impressed as a forbidding Duke of Argyll within the BBC TV present “A Very British Scandal,” which is able to come to the US in April.
A determine of white-wigged insouciance nonetheless reeling from having been shot by Valerie Solanas some years earlier than the play begins, this Warhol reveals an insecurity and disgust that take the half nicely past caricature. Survival, you sense, isn’t any much less precarious for him than it’s for Basquiat. The 2 legends are hellbent on self-laceration, reminding us that, regardless of how nice our cultural legacy, we’re all mortal.
By April 2 on the Younger Vic in London; youngvic.org.