On the cover of the press script of “The Collaboration,” Anthony McCarten’s new bioplay about the Pop Art superstar Andy Warhol and theNeo-Expressionist phenomJean-Michel Basquiat, the pair pose in Everlast boxing gloves and shorts, as if preparing to go 12 rounds with each other.
It’s one of a series of promotional shots for a 1985 exhibit of 16 paintings that they made together, and surely one element of the photo’s endurance as a crystallizing image is that neither artist lived much longer. Warhol died at 58 in 1987 after gallbladder surgery, and Basquiat at just 27 in 1988, after a heroin overdose.
Don’t judge a play by its cover and all that, but in this case, you wouldn’t be far off. “The Collaboration,” starring Paul Bettany as Warhol and a radiant Jeremy Pope as Basquiat, is fundamentally invested in pitting the two painters against each other: their styles, their philosophies, their musings on art and commerce. And their fluctuating cultural currency.
Presented by Manhattan Theater Club and the Young Vic Theater, this transfer from London — whose opening night performance at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater was canceled on Tuesday because of a positive Covid case in the company — is considerably less curious about whatever lies behind each man’s public facade. But Kwame Kwei-Armah’s production would like you to think it’s lifting the curtain on exactly that as it tells the early-80s New York story of Warhol and Basquiat’s work on those 16 canvases, and the friendship that took root between them.
“I am human, even if I don’t look it,” Warhol says in the opening scene, getting right to the crux of biodrama and its perennial appeal to audiences: the sense that it gives us an intimate, up-close glimpse at a public figure’s private life, with its complex messiness and struggle, inspiration and joy.
All the better, naturally, if that public figure is played by a famous actor — like Bettany, so comically endearing last year as Vision in the Avengers television spinoff “WandaVision,” and so deeply creepy as the sociopathic Duke of Argyll in the mini-series “A Very British Scandal.”
There is a frisson of celebrity in the air, then, when we first see Bettany as Warhol, peering at some Basquiat paintings at their art dealer’s gallery, looking displeased — and grumpier still when he hears that this 20-something commands higher prices than he does.
So it’s rather lovely that Pope, a rising star, bests him as Basquiat. Not that this is a competition, let alone a boxing match. But if “The Collaboration” spurs you to spend time with paintings made by one of these artists, it’s going to be Basquiat.
Pope summons not only his charm — a magnet for women, Basquiat dated Madonna — but also his brilliance, ache and depth. His paintings are layered and full, textured and emphatic; so is Pope’s performance. With his heart-melting dimpled smile, he plays the frenetic former graffiti artist as if he knows every pulse of Basquiat’s life that we don’t see onstage, and that McCarten’s blunt instrument of a script can’t convey.
Bettany, though, barely locates more than two dimensions in Warhol, as if the task were to play an icon, not a human being. That could be deliberate. Funny, frail, effete, Bettany’s Warhol is as meticulously impersonal as his art, and my goodness he whines. And he does so in the particular way of characters who need to get some exposition out.
“I’ve never been the same since she shot me,” Warhol says, apropos of almost nothing in the first minutes of the play, referring to Valerie Solanas, whose 1968 attack nearly killed him. He mentions her several more times during the show, not terribly organically. And yet somehow, when Warhol at last nervously takes his shirt off in front of Basquiat, revealing his scarred and corseted torso, he has none of the vulnerability that Alice Neel captured in her poignant bare-chested portrait of Warhol — which you’d think he might have, live.
For all the slenderness of McCarten’s script, it does feel padded, and even so it manages to skip from Warhol and Basquiat’s wary acquaintanceship at the end of Act I straight to an apparently solid friendship at the top of Act II. When their art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger (a wonderfully vivid Erik Jensen), finds a syringe in Basquiat’s couch, he asks Warhol to confront him.
“You two are so close now,” Bruno says — which is news to the audience, especially anyone who might have popped out to the restroom at intermission instead of watching the wordless bromance video montage that played throughout, showing them learning to have fun together in the studio. (Projection design is by Duncan McLean.)
Oddly, given how specific McCarten’s script is about the kind of period technology that Warhol uses when he films, the video the audience sees of them looks distractingly contemporary. But Anna Fleischle’s set is clever, particularly the large panel that hangs overhead, appearing sometimes like a skylight, sometimes like a Mondrian.
McCarten, who made his Broadway debut this month as the book writer of “A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical,” knows the biodrama genre better than most. He built his career as the screenwriter of the movies “The Theory of Everything” (2014), about Stephen Hawking’s first marriage; “Darkest Hour” (2017), about Winston Churchill’s high-stakes start to leading Britain; “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018), about the Queen frontman Freddie Mercury; and “The Two Popes” (2020), about Pope Francis and his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI. McCarten’s Whitney Houston biopic, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” is due out Friday, and a film adaptation of “The Collaboration” is in the wings.
Onstage, though, “The Collaboration” feels emptily formulaic — less like an insider’s view of its famous subjects’ lives than a kind of biographical tourism that gets into serious gawking in its second half. It doesn’t bring us any insight into whatever closeness Warhol and Basquiat had.
If a sense of these artists’ relationship is what you’re looking for, try the extensive, palpably personal exhibition “Jean-Michel Basquiat: King Pleasure,” organized by his sisters and on view through Jan. 1 at the Starrett-Lehigh Building in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. There are touches of Warhol in it — mementos of the two men’s friendship, and of their creative kinship — and they’re very sweet.
Through Jan. 29 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater, Manhattan; manhattantheaterclub.com. Running time: 2 hours.