“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.