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Cape Cod Times: Warhol-Capote chats transcend time

Publication date: 
September 25, 2017
Author: 
Kathi Scrizzi Driscoll

Forty years ago, conversations between two of the most famous creative figures of their time raised questions about reality, celebrity, art and fiction. What they said is yet more proof that the blurring of truth is hardly a topic new to the age of Facebook, reality TV and 24/7 connectivity to the world.

Who’s discussing those topics is part of the fascination of the latest world premiere at American Repertory Theater. “WARHOLCAPOTE” uses the words of pop artist Andy Warhol and writer Truman Capote from 1978 and beyond to not only offer a window on their times and relationship but also to touch on issues that resonate now and in the decades between.

At one point, Warhol comments that people’s lives should be “bugged” for sound and photographed constantly. Decades later, sound familiar?

Also fascinating about this piece is that these conversations had been lost to time.

“Adaptor” Rob Roth (best known as a director, from Broadway’s “Beauty and the Beast” to rock tours by Alice Cooper and KISS) based this script on tapes the two friends recorded in 1978 that had been buried in archives of Warhol’s possessions since his death in 1987. The two had decided they could create a Broadway play together written from their own chats, preserved on a Sony Walkman cassette recorder that Warhol carried with him constantly and called his “wife.”

That play never happened, but Roth – after pushing to gain access to those tapes – decided to use their words to write one himself.

The result is an 85-minute, multi-scene play of conversation that is as circuitous as the metal-like ribbons that scenic designer Stanley A. Meyer winds from floor to ceiling as a backdrop. Stephen Spinella, as Warhol, and Dan Butler, as Capote, sit in fluorescently colored, sinuously curved chairs (which give an instant “pop art” impression) and they talk.

Both men were sensations of their time, Capote for writing 1966′s “In Cold Blood” (based on the murder of a Kansas farming family) and stories that included “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and Warhol for consumer-inspired art that included Campbell’s Soup can images and silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe. The two met – according to Roth’s script – through Warhol’s obsessive admiration for Capote’s writing, and both men were also part of the glittering celebrity and gay social scenes.

Included in “WARHOLCAPOTE” are stories – including some lewd and some snide – that touch on Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, designer Halston, Liza Minnelli, Jackie Onassis, Elton John, Tennessee Williams and nightclub Studio 54.

 

Skillfully guided by Broadway director Michael Mayer (“Spring Awakening,” “American Idiot”), these are tour de force performances for both actors – in re-creating such well-known figures of their time and in making their relationship and thoughts seem believable and valid. Butler has the showier role as expressive, vain and self-important raconteur Capote. His frank recollections and his rapid-fire, often mean-spirited thoughts make up the bulk of the stories, with mood swings based on when the conversations happen between his indulgences and attempts at addiction rehabilitation.

The characterization and control of the outsized persona by Butler (a Broadway and off-Broadway actor most widely seen on TV’s “Frazier”) is all the more impressive because his taking over the role from previously cast Leslie Jordan was announced just three days before the first “WARHOLCAPOTE” performance on Sept. 10.

Spinella has the quieter, yet possibly more memorable, role, with Warhol as the reserved interviewer and admirer – offering commentary and reaction with a largely optimistic view of life that Capote comments on. Spinella (best known for playing Prior in Broadway’s “Angels in America”) disappears into the part behind a white Warhol wig and glasses, and the way he frequent sits back with crossed arms or primly perches still at the edge of a chair provides a marked contrast to Butler’s more relaxed and animated Capote.

Director Mayer uses Warhol’s direct commentary of his thoughts to the audience to terrific effect, and deadpan observations by Spinella’s Warhol add as much to the humor of the piece as Capote’s no-holds-barred commentary on celebrities. One key moment comes when Warhol points out that much of what Capote is telling him can’t be true.

That just adds to the head-spinning layers of blurred reality and fiction of this piece. Another important factor: Roth’s script does quote conversations between the men, but not particularly as they happened. And he ties in statements and writing from other times.

So while every single word in this wide-ranging script belonged to Warhol or Capote, there’s no way for audiences to tell when those words were actually said or in what context.

Roth has dubbed the result “a non-fiction invention,” a nod to Capote’s use of the term “non-fiction novel” for “In Cold Blood.” So we are also interpreting what these two famous artists said – some true, some not, at unknown points in time – through his and Mayer’s lenses.

Interestingly, some relevant facts missing from the script are exactly who Warhol and Capote were and what happened in their lives – likely missing because they would not have explained themselves in their own conversations. The show assumes a certain level of knowledge of these cultural figures; references are made, for example, to Capote’s lovers, rehab, facelift, writings about his socialite friends, etc., with no explanation.

Many audience members may head to the internet to try to fill in the gaps. And the fact that the biographical information is so easily accessible with a few taps on an ever-present electronic device seems like something that Warhol, with his Walkman constantly recording the minutiae of his life, would quite possibly have appreciated.

 

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