MTC’s The Collaboration Makes Disposable Sellable Art for Consumption

Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope in MTC’s The Collaboration. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The Broadway Theatre Review: MTC’s The Collaboration

By Ross

It’s a formulation that we are supposed to buy into right away. Like the art world and the two artists being played with an almost all-too-knowing nod straight to the audience. In Anthony McCarten’s provocative but ultimately tiring play, The Collaboration, the historic icons on display leap at us, in a way, demanding to be taken in through an artful lens. We do want to believe, as we do in theatre, and we try, but, as directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah (Donmar’s One Night in Miami), the Artistic Director of the Young Vic in London, the painted strokes are too forced, and much too obvious to be taken for anything deep or meaningful. It shines, but in a way that doesn’t register, becoming an artifice of pop commercial culture, prepared and presented with purpose, not for anything but the market. Which may be as apropos of the product as anything up on that stage. 

Recognizable mainly because of the wig, courtesy of Karicean “Karen” Dick (“Michael Jackson: Searching…“) and Carol Robinson (“Burlesque“), Paul Bettany (“A Very British Scandal“; West End’s An Inspector Calls), the wig designers for the show, the play cryptically fashions an Andy Warhol characterization that is appealing to watch and easy to engage with, but I’m not quite sure it registers as authentic. The first scene finds him being convinced by his art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger, played pleasantly by Erik Jensen (LCT’s Disgraced), to collaborate with Basquiat, for a purpose that feels artfully inauthentic, or at least, superficial. It’s money and fame, that is at the heart of this pressuring, and there is lots of ego in the arm twisting. I guess we are to accept that as enough, even when history tells us this isn’t exactly how it went down. But in McCarten’s play, the two punch plot formulation is presented basically to power this Collaboration through to the end. It’s like watching an up-and-coming boxer coming into the ring with an already famous one standing there already, reluctantly lacing up his gloves for the sole reason of trying to hold on to some of the glory he has amassed. But the stakes aren’t high enough emotionally in this formulation to care, so I’m not sure I understood the point, beyond that the world is forever fascinated by these two artists, even when they aren’t doing anything all that interesting. 

But it is the over-the-top dramatization of Jean-Michel Basquiat, by the usually solid Jeremy Pope (Broadway’s Choir Boy; Ain’t Too Proud…), that pulls the play sideways. He gives us a tortured artist, full of dynamic twitches and some hypnotic gazing out into the audience, that feels as authentic as a poorly drawn cartoon. It consistently feels like Pope is playing to the crowd, giving us a cutout wax figure full of despair and troubled angst, wrapped in addiction and trauma-fueled delusion. I can’t say I know enough about the man to really say if that is an accurate portrayal, but it did feel performative as if the fourth wall kept being pulled down just so we, the audience, could get a good look at the damaged famous man that we are so drawn to, rather than trust our understanding of the creation and its subtlety. 

Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope in MTC’s The Collaboration. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

The music is pumped up and DJ’d in as we walk into MTC’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre before The Collaboration has even begun, giving energy and the air of the period and place we are partaking in, thanks to the compelling images that take us back in time, courtesy of projection designer Duncan McLean (Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes at City Center). It elevates the crowd, bringing them to their feet to dance to the music and feel the rhythm of the rhyme. With a compelling set and exacting costumes designed by Anna Fleischle (Broadway/West End/Young Vic’s Death of a Salesman) with lighting by Ben Staton (Broadway’s A Christmas Carol) and a sound design by Emma Laxton (Young Vic’s Blood Wedding), the piece has all the elements of fine art in the making, but flounders in the splash of obvious choices by writer McCarten, who is also the book writer for A Beautiful Noise, another paint-by-the-numbers jukebox show on Broadway, that one about the life and legend of Neil Diamond. Another by the books engagement.

The Collaboration focuses our gaze in on these two influential and culturally important figures that blew apart the art world and reformulated it in very distinct and compelling ways. But the play fails to find a bridge to cross from one space to another, even as we watch them try to unpack the process before them through bickering, complaining, disengaging, and filming. It never feels organic, especially the dialogue, and it doesn’t seem to have anywhere to go. Assistance to given by the inclusion of Krysta Rodriguez (MCC’s Seared) as one of Basquiat’s more engaging girlfriends, but even with her ragtag representation, her inclusion never truly registers beyond being the bearer of bad news and complications. Had she not entered the space, the play would not require too much more to stay on track.

Beyond some facts and figures that are thrown in for history’s sake, as if I was speed-reading Wikipedia about the two influencial artists, I waited and waited for a dramatic arc that would take me to a place of deeper understanding and engagement. It never really comes, beyond superficial ramblings about beauty, fame, drug addiction, and the idea around an artist’s ambition and drive. But nothing beyond the skin deep. It left me with the feeling one gets when one opens up an old box of postcards from fantastic and famed art shows seen in the past. We remember the idea and a few of the visuals, but sometimes, not much more. That’s about as complicated or deep as the thought and the memory gets from the postcard image of art made into a product. And we will place it back in the box and move on with our life, not really able to take in the image that was manufactured for our consumption on a postcard that was never sent. It’s a pleasant enough memory, but not one that enlightens or deepens the understanding. Unfortunately.


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