Boston Globe: Art, celebrity, and some high-speed talk in ‘WARHOLCAPOTE’ at the ART

Publication date: 
September 26, 2017
Author: 
Patti Hartigan

When the lights come up on “WARHOLCAPOTE” at the American Repertory Theater, two actors are on opposite sides of the stage sharing different sides of the same story.

Pop artist Andy Warhol, played by Stephen Spinella, recalls being obsessed with Truman Capote as a neophyte in Manhattan, writing daily fan letters to the author of “In Cold Blood.” The flamboyant Capote, played by Dan Butler, remembers Warhol as “a hopeless born loser.” That “loser” became the Campbell’s Soup poster child for Pop art. The men ultimately forged a friendship, which is chronicled in Rob Roth’s two-person play, subtitled “A Non-Fiction Invention,” now receiving its world premiere at the Loeb Drama Center.

Culled from Warhol’s recordings of his conversations with Capote in the 1970s, the play explores the relationship between these singular — but similarly haunted — men. The script also includes quotes from interviews, often uttered as asides aimed directly at the audience.

Warhol kept a distance from the world even as he observed it. His tape recorder, he says, “finished whatever emotional life I might have ever had.” Capote, on the other hand, wears his emotions on the sleeves of his snug gray suits.

Spinella, who won two Tony Awards for “Angels in America,” is ingenuous as Warhol, holding his hands to his face and saying “gee” like he just got off the bus from Peoria. Warhol is yin to Capote’s yang. During a scene at the druggy disco Studio 54, Spinella stands stiff and erect, while Butler dances with a swizzle stick, proclaiming, “The thing I like most to do in the world is talk.”

And talk he does, dropping names with the same speed he downs highballs and pills. Liza, Bogey, Tennessee, Jackie K. It’s juicy gossip, some of it true, some of it bombast.

For most of the 90-minute play, the two men sit in Egg chairs placed under a maze of undulating strips in Stanley A. Meyer’s simple set, which features projections by Darrel Maloney. Supposedly meeting to create a Broadway play, they are struggling to connect. Warhol was lionized in his day, but he was lonely and lost. “I used to come home and I’d be so glad to find a little roach there to talk to,” he says.

Capote is drowning in his own genius — and addictions. As directed by Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakenings”), the characters hardly even look at each other. While Capote opens up about undergoing rehab, Warhol barely listens and focuses on trying to get the perfect Polaroid.

Spinella is deliberately understated as Warhol, a naif in the iconic white wig and skinny jeans. Butler, who stepped in at the last minute after Leslie Jordan dropped out because of “unforeseen personal circumstances,” hasn’t yet fully embodied Capote in the way that Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Morse have in other incarnations. But he does take glee in Capote’s over-the-top stories. And when he breaks down, it is clear there is deep despair hiding behind those dark glasses.

Roth spent 10 years sewing together a narrative from hours and hours of tapes, and his play, while quite funny at times, is a meditation on the toll it takes to be a celebrity artist. Capote is haunted by the “fantastic Ferrari motor” that runs in his head all the time. Warhol uses his Sony Walkman as a shield to protect him from the world. For all the talk, they remain at a distance, until a painful moment near the end when Capote falls apart. The emotionally vacant Warhol awkwardly puts his hand on his friend’s knee. “Art is too hard,’’ he says.

Given that these artists are iconic figures, the production is disarmingly without affectation. The way Roth tells it, they were wounded by fame and searching for intimacy. They certainly were ahead of their time. Warhol makes an uncanny prediction, noting that “people in the news” are going to be attacked in the future. “It’s really going to be awful,” he says. And that was before the invention of Twitter.

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