ART's "WARHOLCAPOTE": Capital Idea?

Stephen Spinella & Dan Butler in "WARHOLCAPOTE"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

Back in the late 1970's, Andy Warhol and Truman Capote got together and decided they were meant to produce a play destined for Broadway. They recorded themselves over a period of several months in a series of conversations intended as the framework for their proposed piece of theater, but, for whatever reasons, such was not to be, until director Rob Roth came across the tapes of those conversations. There followed a decade of unearthing those recordings (there would prove to be almost sixty of them, each ninety minutes long, a total of eighty hours of recordings and eight thousand pages of transcripts, all undated). The result is WARHOLCAPOTE, the work now being given its world premiere at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, staged by Michael Mayer (Spring Awakening) and starring Stephen Spinella (of Angels in America fame) as Andy and Dan Butler (last seen at ART as George Wallace in All the Way) as Truman. Theater buffs might recall that Cambridge was also the site of a different production about Capote, years ago, entitled Tru, featuring Robert Morse in the title role (for which he ultimately won a Tony Award), at the Hasty Pudding Theater. That was a one-person tour de force, but the present work is very much a two-hander, focusing on both artists, and in their own words, before their idea sputtered out; Warhol's fifteen minutes of flame?

Dan Butler & Stephen Spinella in "WARHOLCAPOTE"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

Roth maintains that, although the play has erupted from his imagination, every word of it is theirs, and decidedly Warhol's idea, to which Capote agreed. Roth refers to it as a “non-fiction invention” (the play's subtitle), about what the cost is of being an artist and the dangers that are inherent in becoming a public figure vulnerable to attack. He admits to uncovering the idea but rightly insists that the idea for a play originated with Warhol. Capote died before their efforts would see the light of day. (Tellingly, Warhol didn't attend the funeral, though he did make the claim that he “cared”). Roth secured the rights to develop his concept by indemnifying the Warhol foundation and the Capote estate. Bonded court report transcriptions of the tapes alone took a year. Basically, what has evolved is the chance to observe the two potential creators as they collaborated on their initial draft of their play. Their discussions about the proposed work included Warhol's view that “plot isn't important; it shouldn't have a plot” and that “art should be for everyone.” Capote's expressed view was that of treating truth in the form of fiction; he called his In Cold Blood a “non-fiction novel”. In this ninety minute work by Roth, he notes they spoke every single word but “not remotely in this way”. The rhythm and cadence of both creative sources often come through, as when Warhol bemoans his loneliness (“I go home, and I'm happy to see a roach”) or celebrity (“everybody should be bugged and photographed all the time”) or when the flamboyant Capote wasn't reluctant to go on television and be what was described as “eccentrically gay” or insincerely humble (“I'm gonna tell you what it feels like to be a genius”). Director Mayer has stated his intention to veer away from naturalism to the abstract, which would have undoubtedly pleased Warhol.

Here there are several scenes, (effectively delineated by Lighting Designer Kevin Adams and Sound Designer John Gromada, as well as Projection Designer Darrel Maloney) from public (Studio 54, then a restaurant) to private (Warhol's study, Capote's home), showing how fame drew them together, both as friends and contemporary artists. Each internalized his celebrity status as well as his art. As one remarks, they are true “performers”. As such, each sets up a facade making it difficult to grasp anything about their personal lives beyond their vapid celebrity. Though the striking Scenic Design by Stanley A. Meyer and pertinent Costume Design by Clint Ramos add some context, the work's success rests squarely on the shoulders of the two actors. Butler captures the Southern twang of the gossipy novelist for a substantial amount of the proceedings (remarkably, considering his last-minute replacement in the role), but it's Spinella who uncannily inhabits his role, recreating the artist's flat lack of tone and his childlike demeanor. They deliver a few real zingers (some of them, especially those from Capote, familiar from frequent television guest appearances), but leave one in the end wondering whether to invite these two self-absorbed celebrities to spend time with us, given their celebrated off-putting self-absorption. This probably will depend on whether one shares their fascination with themselves.

Born in1924, Truman Streckfus Persons died at 60 of liver cancer in 1984; born in 1928, as Andrew Warhola, Warhol died in 1987 of complications from gall bladder surgery. The question is, was Warhol correct when he prophesied that “they're gonna make money from bashing us, and that's going to be scary”. Rather than any bashing, WARHOLCAPOTE emerges as a labor of love for Roth.
You may experience what Roth has wrought until October 13th.

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