Friday, March 31, 2023

Bad Cinderella (Imperial Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Andrew Lloyd Webber has already had a crack at another iconic children's tale, “The Wizard of Oz,” though it was only a partial score, as he was supplementing the familiar Harold Arlen / Yip Harberg tunes from the MGM film.

His take on Cinderella is all his. But it might as well be the work of two composers: the Lloyd Webber of lush romantic melodies and the Lloyd Webber of pastiche pop and rock. The blend of both has often paid off several times, most lucratively with “The Phantom of the Opera.” But here it's a frustrating mix.

The lush ballroom music, a couple of the romantic ballads especially the Prince's "Only You, Lonely You" and Cinderella's "Far Too Late," as well as felicitous bits and pieces throughout are, taken on their own terms, really quite nice and make one wish this were a full-out romantic telling of the Perrault/Grimm story.

As it is, it's a goofy feminist riff on the tale, courtesy of Emerald Fennell, screenwriter of the clever “Promising Young Woman.” (Alexis Scheer is credited with additional script material.) Douglas Carter Beane’s script revision of the Rodgers & Hammerstein “Cinderella” last on Broadway brought the story more up-to-date but arguably in a much more tasteful, and still amusing, way. They’ve set this one in a town called Belleville, where beauty is the superficially guiding principle. The Godmother (Christina Acosta Robinson) is part beautician/part plastic surgeon.

Fennell’s Cinderella is a grumpy goth gal  who, in less enlightened times might have been termed a tomboy. And Prince Sebastian is actually the awkward and shy younger brother of the more famous Prince Charming who has been missing in action and presumed dead. Sebastian and Cinderella have been sparring buddies since childhood but it takes them two acts to realize that their easygoing friendship is, in fact, love.

Cinderella's stepmother is as ambitious as tradition makes her but has less control of Cinderella who, in this girl power telling, has plenty of agency. She's played with scene-stealing panache by Carolee Carmelo who gives her every line a delicious comic spin, finding nuances that, at least on the basis of the London cast LP, were missed by her U.K. counterpart.

Carmelo has a worthy adversary in Grace McLean as the Queen who harbors a surprisingly kinky admiration for her missing son. And their bitchy duet "I Know You" is the show’s witty highlight. It also happens to be veteran lyricist David Zippel’s best work here. Otherwise, the reliable Zippel, who previously teamed with Lloyd Webber for “The Woman in White,” is less than inspired, pandering, like the show in general, to a puerile audience.

Fennell’s script is filled with inconsistencies and head scratching moments. Again, on the basis of the London album, it would seem there have been some dialogue changes. There is, in addition, some new music and a reordering of some numbers.

Though admittedly a subjective opinion, the character of Cinderella, as written, is simply not appealing enough to keep us rooting for her, though Linedy Genao plays her well enough and socks over the power ballads to maximum effect. These include the rather monotonous title song, which includes a brief nod to “In My Own Little Corner” from Richard Rodgers’ “Cinderella” score, and “I Know I Have a Heart (Because You Broke It),” the thrust of which would seem to harken back to the Tin Man’s sentiments in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Jordan Dobson is very appealing as hapless Sebastian and his “Only You, Lonely You” ballad is arguably the best of the bunch. Curiously, virtually all of these pieces are soliloquies for either Cinderella or Sebastian.

Sami Gayle and Morgan Higgins are amusing as Cinderella's vain ambitious sisters in the usual manner. And when -- small spoiler -- Prince Charming eventually shows up, he's played with testosterone-fueled bravado by Cameron Loyal. (All the men in the town are ripped hunks.)

Laurence Connor directs the material at hand capably, with choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter. (The ball is nicely handled.) Gareth Owen’s sound design is pitched at standard Broadway decibels, which is to say, loud.

Gabriela Tylesova’s sets and costumes are certainly eye filling and fun on their own terms

If Lloyd Webber ever chooses to make a symphonic suite of this score, as he's done with so many of his previous shows, there would actually be a decent amount of listenable material with which to work. But I do wish that rather than turning out yet another show geared at the Gen Z crowd so soon after “The School of Rock,” he had opted for a more mature approach to the story, as his latter-day shows like “The Woman in White, “Stephen Ward” and “Love Never Dies” at least attempted to do.

(Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street;

Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman: (I.-r.) Linedy Genao and Jordan Dobson

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Parade (Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This is the superbly mounted revival of the 1998 Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics)/Alfred Uhry (book) musical about the famous Leo Frank case, so widely praised after its critically acclaimed two week run at City Center, though not officially part of that venue’s Encores series, last year. A Broadway run seemed a logical next step, and here it is.

Leo Frank, a superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory in 1913, was brought to trial for the murder of a 14-year-old girl in his employ. The case was widely publicized and caught the imagination of the country with many prominent figures of the day calling for Frank’s pardon. Though almost surely innocent, as research over the years has strongly suggested, an indictment of Frank was politically expedient, fueled in part by his Jewish heritage. Sentenced to hang, though the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, Frank was ultimately abducted from jail and lynched by a self-righteous mob. 

A depressing tale to be sure, and one watches with that sense of foreboding knowing the inevitable outcome, but Uhry and Brown put the emphasis on the strong bond between Frank and his devoted wife Lucille (beautifully played by Micaela Diamond) who, much to Leo’s surprise, shows her mettle as she fights for his vindication. So there’s a sense of uplift, and bravery in the actions of Leo and Lucille who proclaim their love and commitment to each other in rapturous duets like “This Is Not Over Yet” and “All the Wasted Time.” Brown’s score is cannily crafted so that there are lighter numbers among the heavier ones. “Come Up to My Office” in the first act, and “Pretty Music” in the second, to name just two. And all the music sounds wonderful under the direction of Tom Murray.

This production uses the revisions from a 2007 Rob Ashford revival at London’s Donmar Warehouse. I don’t recall the original Hal Prince production vividly enough to say what’s been changed, but this version works very well.

The cast is first-rate. Diamond, as stated, is marvelous as Lucille and Ben Platt's Leo is equally impressive, singing superbly, and not afraid to show Frank’s chauvinistic side. The role’s memorable originator,  Brent Carver, is no longer with us, but  as fate would have it, Carolee Carmello, the original Lucille, is right across the street stopping the show as Bad Cinderella’s conniving stepmother in the Lloyd Webber musical of the same name. 

In the large ensemble cast, there are almost too many outstanding performances to mention. But I can’t resist a shout-out to Paul Alexander Nolan as relentless prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, Alex Joseph Grayson as the factory’s janitor (and, as history has it, probable killer) Jim Conley (whose second act blues number is a showstopper), Sean Allan Krill as Governor Slaton, Eddie Cooper as night watchman Newt Lee, Jay Armstrong Johnson as reporter Britt Craig, Manoel Felciano as anti-Frank publisher Tom Watson. 

Dane Laffrey’s simple but effective scenic design, dominated by Sven Ortel’s period projections, and Susan Hilferty’s costumes, pull us convincingly into the period..

Michael Arden directs with an imaginative hand, and the choreography by Lauren Yalango-Grant and Christopher Cree Grant contribute to the seamless whole. 

(Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre, 242 West 45th Street;; through August 6)

Photo by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Micaela Diamond and Ben Platt

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

A Doll’s House (Hudson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

A production of Henrik Ibsen’s classic devoid of scenery, period costumes, and props hardly seems a prospect to set the heart racing. And yet, for all of that, director Jamie Lloyd’s production rates as one of the most gripping I’ve seen. 

This is a highly colloquial version by Amy Herzog (perhaps too colloquial at times as when Nora drops an f-bomb). It's performed on a dimly lit stage with voices cannily amplified by sound designers Ben and Max Ringham to a foreboding score by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, all to highly compelling effect. In Lloyd's mesmerizing staging rather like a radio play, you are thus guided to listen to Ibsen’s ever-suspenseful story even more intently. 

Jessica Chastain’s Nora Helmer, seated through most of the intermission-less evening, is a triumph. She surpasses her first Broadway outing in “The Heiress.” Not entirely likable in this interpretation, at least at the start, Nora registers as boastful, vain, self-centered, materialistic, and callous. All these traits are suggested in the original text, but are boldly heightened here. Still, as the play progresses, and Nora’s secret crime (forging a signature for a loan to restore her ailing husband to health) threatens to be exposed, she earns our sympathy and the final break from her husband Torvald (staged in a rather thrilling coup de theatre which is completely apt) is powerful as ever.

Arian Moayed is as patronizing and sexist a Torvald as we’ve seen, coolly superior to Nora until he explodes volcanically after learning of Nora’s actions. As Krogstad, the money lender who threatens to expose Nora if she doesn’t prevail upon her husband to save his position at Torvald’s bank, Okieriete Onaodowan is quietly powerful, and plays the role in a far more sympathetic manner than I’ve seen before. His scenes with Nora are strikingly staged with the two of them sitting back to back, as she tries to resist his entreaties. Again, their voices propel the scene. As Krogstad’s old flame, and Nora’s friend, the widowed, impoverished Kristine, Jesmille Darbouze projects quiet strength and resolve.  

Michael Patrick Thornton, last seen here in the misguided Sam Gold “Macbeth,” makes an outstanding Dr. Rank, and his crucial scene with Nora -- rife with sexual undercurrent -- is beautifully played. And Tasha Lawrence rounds out the superlative crew as nanny Anne-Marie. (In this stripped down version, we don’t see the three Helmer children, nor the maid Helene.)

My only quibble with the production was Jon Clark’s low-lighting level which, though effective for the aforementioned reason, needed just a couple of notches more illumination. 

No one would want this interpretation to be the template for all future productions of the play. And I have comparably fond memories of fully staged mountings including Janet McTeer’s 1997 Broadway turn, and a fabulous 1982 RSC Adrian Noble production in London with Cheryl Campbell and Stephen Moore, to name just two.

This is, needless to say, a great play, and, in the right hands, rarely fails to make an impact. On this occasion, Herzog and Lloyd have done the play especially proud, presenting it with renewed relevance and immediacy.

(Hudson Theatre, 141 West 44th Street;; through June 10)

Photo Courtesy of A Doll’s House:

(I.-r.) Arian Moayed and Jessica Chastain

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Becomes a Woman (Mint Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

Broadway musical buffs may recollect Betty Smith’s name on the cover of the cast album as co-librettist of the 1951 musical, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (based on her international 1943 best-seller). But that, in fact, was to be her only Broadway credit. And yet, Smith was apparently a prolific playwright who prized the dramatic field above all others, turning out around 70 plays. Several won prestigious prizes, but none of them received professional productions. 

Just how dedicated she was to the genre is apparent in Mint Theater’s absorbing production of her 1931 play which won the University of Michigan’s renowned Avery Hopwood Award.

The play’s protagonist shares the name of the central character of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Francie Nolan, but there all similarities end. This Francie, impressively played by Emma Pfitzer Price in her Off-Broadway debut, works in a Kress five-and-dime-cent store in Brooklyn as a song plugger at the sheet music counter. A steadfastly virtuous 19-year-old who resists the myriad flirtations of the male customers much to the amused disdain of accompanying pianist Florry (entertaining Pearl Rhein with a Louise Brooks bob) who has far fewer scruples.

But when good looking, upper crust Leonard (Peterson Townsend), the son of the Kress chain’s chief (Duane Boutté), asks her out for a date, she finally lowers her guard and relents.

In the second act, we meet Francie’s lower middle-class family -- boorish policeman braggart of a father (forceful Jeb Brown), pious mother (Antoinette LaVecchia really nailing the character), tactless brothers (Tim Webb and Jack Mastrianni) -- when she brings Leonard home to meet the folks, with (slight spoiler) disastrous results. 

The color-blind casting of Leonard here rather requires some temporary suspension of disbelief, as Pa Nolan makes it patently clear before Leonard walks through the door that he expects any fella Francie brings home to be Irish Catholic. As it happens, the whole family treats Leonard with amusingly fawning deference as it seems they’ve never had a well-bred gentleman in the house before.

Without revealing any plot specifics, in the third act, let’s just say that Francie shakes off her shy passivity and comes to full maturity, living up to the play’s title. 

The humorous tone of the first act -- with Price skillfully warbling a handful of songs, most especially Jerome Kern’s “Left All Alone Again Blues'' from “The Night Boat” -- and engaging in light banter with the other shopgirls, gives way to some pretty heavy kitchen sink melodrama in the second (actually, quite literally, as it takes place in the Nolan kitchen), and then a serious and sobering third. Smith’s dialogue has the ring of veracity, and her feminist perspective is highly persuasive throughout, even if some of the plot turns challenge credulity. 

Vicki R. Davis’s sets -- the colorful Kress Dime Store of the first act (which a program note is careful to assure us is purely fictional in all respects as the real-life Kress chain never even had a Brooklyn store), and the Nolan’s tenement kitchen in the second -- are beautifully realized on the Mint’s modest budget. Likewise, Emilee McVey-Lee’s costumes are period perfect.

Under the assured direction of Britt Berke, Price’s highly committed central performance makes us really care about Francie’s plight, and overlook some of those script improbabilities. Her transition from the passive girl of the first act to assured woman in the third is truly outstanding. And there’s marvelous work from Gina Daniels -- likable and warm -- as Francie’s workmate and neighbor Tessie, Jason O’Connell as the good-hearted ambulance driver who’s sweet on Tessie, and Boutté as Leonard’s slickly unflappable father who shares some important moments with Price in the final act. 

(NY City Center Stage II, 131 West 55th Street;; through March 18)

Photos by Todd Cerveris:

(Top)(l.-r.) Townsend, Price

(Below)(l.-r.) Price, Daniels, Brown, LaVecchia

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Red Mill (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

This is VHRP Artistic Director Alyce Mott’s fourth go-round with Victor Herbert’s popular musical comedy -- originally a vehicle for the great vaudeville team of Montgomery & Stone -- and why not? It is, after all, the longest running of all Herbert’s shows. It ran for an impressive 318 performances back in 1906, and the 1945 revival ran even longer tallying 531 performances.

Even now, it’s still mightily entertaining, with showstoppers like “The Streets of New York” and “Every Day is Ladies’ Day with Me” as potent as ever. 

Mott’s version is a streamlined one. At the late Dino Anagnost’s Little Orchestra Society production (2007), it was basically a concert version with narration; Light Opera of New York’s expanded that edition in 2010; and her two with VHRP (the last in 2017 and now this) showed further refinements. Unlike the last, this one has orchestral accompaniment, a huge plus. Seven fine instrumentalists, including the superb William Hicks on piano, played a stylish reduction of the original orchestrations under the commanding leadership of the company’s musical director Michael Thomas. The tuneful overture set the apt period spirit, and was all the more charming for its chamber-like quality.

Mott’s libretto makes concessions to modern sensibilities and the size of the company, 16 in all. As before, the characters of soubrette Tina and innkeeper Willem are gone. Tina’s songs were delivered by the romantic lead Gretchen (Sarah Caldwell Smith, repeating her 2017 role) and Berta (formerly Bertha), Gretchen’s aunt (Alexa Devlin). 

The basic storyline remained intact. The setting is Holland. Gretchen loves sailor Dori (originally called Doris)(Andrew Klima), but her father, the Burgomaster (solid David Seatter, a VHRP founding artist) insists on an advantageous marriage to the Governor of Zeeland (Colin Safley). Two penniless Americans, Con Kidder (Vince Gover)  and Kid Conner (Andrew Buck), assisted by Berta, try to assist the lovers, especially after Gretchen is locked in the eponymous mill and Dori is tossed into jail by the Burgomaster. Eventually, the comic duo saves the day by impersonating Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. An auto accident involving a French noblewoman (impressively authentic Sarah Bleasdale) and a British solicitor (well cast Jonathan Fox Powers) add a bit more subplot. 

The plot machinations are pretty silly, even in this condensed form, but musically, the show offers one catchy tune after another without a weak link. Some songs lost a verse or two, and a couple were missing altogether, but only real buffs would notice, and it was still a satisfyingly full evening of music which generated warm audience response throughout. 

I couldn't help but recall late Herbert champion Frederick Roffman’s memorable production which not only included every number of the published score, but also cut ones like Willem’s “I Ring the Bell,” and even a couple of rare interpolations from other works. For all of Roffman’s genuine scholarship, he was no purist and employed a revised script with some new lyrics and, like Mott, changed the order of the songs, and distribution among characters to suit those revisions. 

In Mott’s rewrite, the female characters are given more agency than previously, and the male side suffers a bit. Dori, ostensibly the romantic hero, is fairly ineffectual. But Klima’s vocals were ringingly strong and impressive. 

Devlin’s rich vocals, incisive diction, and dramatic prowess were impressively on display. She set the evening’s tone with her authoritative delivery of the opening “Legend of Mill,” originally a second act number, but then reprised it in the second act anyway. She also duetted delightfully with Smith on the rarely done “I’m Always Doing Something I Don’t Want to Do.” But it’s a pity “A Widow Has Ways” has been cut, as she would no doubt have sung it superbly. 

The VHRP audience may not have been exactly "convulsed with laughter " as the 1906 audiences were said to have been by Montgomery and Stone, but Gover and Buck were likable and amusing as the comic leads, and their joyous “Streets of New York” number was infectiously performed (in tandem with Smith and Klima). The show-stopping “Good-a-Bye John,” a huge hit in the original production, was missing, perhaps as much for today’s ethnic sensitivities as for its complicated authorship. Herbert was virtually duped into writing the tune hummed to him by Montgomery & Stone, who wanted another number “similar” to something they had done before. The team didn’t reveal to Herbert that what they were quoting to him was, in fact, an existing piece.  

Smith, pretty in pink, sweetly vocalized the score’s famous “Moonbeams,” pairing nicely with Klima there and elsewhere.

Safley, a much younger Governor than usually the case, delivered his “Every Day is Ladies Day” entrance number with firm voice and great panache, while Alonso Jordan Lopez, Justin Chandler Baptista, and Keith Broughton camped it up jovially as the “ladies.” Safley's subsequent duet with Devlin was another highlight.

Veterans David Seatter and tenor John Nelson as sheriff Franz -- each with impressive and lengthy operetta credits in their CVs -- strutted across the stage like the seasoned pros they are in a delightful vaudeville turn for “You Never Can Tell About a Woman.” 

The ensemble of six (Sophie Thompson, Paige Cutrona, and Annie Heartney along with Lopez, Baptista, and Broughton) were an invaluable asset throughout, providing strong choral support, while playing the inn’s artists and models and other characters along the way. 

Mott directed her cast very capably, and this production was, in fact, her best staged of the three productions VHRP has done at its new larger venue. Christine Hall devised some cute choreography for the numbers that required it such as “Always Go While the Goin’ is Good.” 

Back in 1906, the New York Dramatic Mirror In its review declared, "there is nothing dull about it, not a moment when the audience shows weariness, not a song or a tune that will not bear repetition…it is a steady, satisfying work. "

As delightfully shown by VHRP’s small-scale but accomplished revival 117 years later, that assessment still holds resoundingly true..

Coming up next: an expanded version of Herbert’s very rare ‘Cyrano de Bergerac” (April 25-27).

(The Theater at St. Jeans, 170 E. 76th Street;; February 21-23)

Production photos by Jill DeVine

Archival photos from the Collection of John Guidinger

(Top to bottom)

"Whistle It" with Andrew Buck (Kid), Sarah Caldwell Smith (Gretchen), Vince Gover (Con)

David C. Montgomery and Fred A. Stone

The New Victor Herbert Orchestra and Maestro Michael Thomas, 2nd from bottom on the Left

Scene from “The Red Mill” 1906

"The Legend of the Mill" related by Alexa Devlin (jBerta) to the Villagers

"The Streets of New York" with Andrew Buck (Kid) & Sarah Caldwell Smith (Gretchen);  Andrew Klima (Dori) and Vince Glover (Con)

Andrew Klima (Dori) surprises Sarah Caldwell Smith (Gretchen) with his return

"Everyday Is Ladies Day With Me" with L-R: Keith Broughton, Colin Safley as Governor, Alonso Jordan Lopez, Justin Chandler Baptista

"You Never Can Tell About A Woman" with L-R:  David Seatter as the Burgomaster and John Nelson as the Sherriff

The Company

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Pictures from Home (Studio 54)

By Harry Forbes

The solid performances of Nathan Lane, Zoë Wanamaker, and Danny Burstein are the most striking points of interest here. The play itself -- Sharr White's adaptation of Larry Sultan's pictorial memoir of the same name -- is, sorry to say, somewhat less than compelling.

I must confess I took my seat with absolutely no foreknowledge of what I was about to see. Nor, I'm ashamed to admit, had I even glanced at the title page of the Playbill where I would have learned that what I was about to see was based on the aforementioned source material. So I watched the play under the mistaken notion it was entirely a creation of the playwright. 

And from that point of view, I found it only intermittently engaging, and oddly repetitive. The action centers on photographer Larry (Burstein), who lives in San Francisco with his wife and family, and his frequent periodic visits to his aging parents in their San Fernando Valley home, capturing them in staged portraits while interviewing them about the past. The photos, including many from his childhood, are projected on the back wall. (The Sultans had moved from Brooklyn to California in 1949.)

Irving Sultan (Lane), the father, a former Schick razor salesman, is alternately compliant and ornery about his son's purpose. Realtor mother Jean (Wanamaker) is skeptical but overall more agreeable as she also tries to mediate between father and son.

The photographs displayed are, as I figured out later, the actual Sultans. In my initial ignorance, I assumed they were just anonymous models so that the production would not be reliant on the current cast. Knowing the facts makes things somewhat more interesting to me in hindsight.

Larry Sultan, who died in 2009, had said “I wanted to puncture this mythology of the family and show what happens when we are driven by images of success. And I was willing to use my family to prove a point.”

White has done his best to give a somewhat repetitive situation a viable dramatic arc. And, along the way, there is a lot of wit and home truths about family and the American Dream ideal of what success was supposed to look like in postwar America. There are even some interesting Willy Loman-like overtones to Irving’s backstory. And there’s real conflict when we learn that Jean has, in fact, been the virtual breadwinner since Irving stopped working. But even so, a certain tedium sets in.

White’s script gives Lane plenty of opportunity to shine including a powerful dramatic outburst at one point. And we’re so accustomed to seeing American-born but UK-raised Wanamaker on her customary English turf, that it’s quite a novelty to see her as in this very American part which she carries off with customary aplomb. She matches Lane’s strong performance, and also gets her big moment amidst all the finely detailed smaller ones. Irving and Jean’s bickering throughout the play sounds wonderfully natural.

The very versatile Burstein, a mainstay of musicals, is predictably excellent, but Larry is a rather thankless role and we soon empathize with Irving's annoyance at his son's relentless probing. The play is constructed so that Danny breaks the fourth wall (as do the others occasionally) and takes the audience into his friendly confidence but the overall effect is still a bit smarmy.

Michael Yeagen’s set (astutely lighted by Jennier Tipton)  -- the couple's spacious living room -- encompasses the different eras of the play’s action, and allows plenty of space for the giant projections throughout. Jennifer Moeller’s period costumes are enhanced by Tommy Kurzman’s wig/hair and makeup which includes a white wig for Lane. 

There's understated poignancy in the final minutes of the play, and Bartlett Sher’s direction is as impeccable as ever, but I wish I could have been more genuinely moved.

(Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street;; through April 30)

Photo by Julieta Cervantes:

(l to r): Danny Burstein, Zoë Wanamaker, and Nathan Lane

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Collaboration (Manhattan Theatre Club)

By Harry Forbes

Playwright Anthony McCarten, who’s written solid screenplays based on real-life personages (e.g. “The Two Popes” (Benedict XVI and Francis), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Freddie Mercury), “The Theory of Everything” (Stephen Hawking), and theater pieces like the current Neil Diamond bio, “A Beautiful Noise,”  turns his pen to the art world and the unlikely seeming pairing of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat who, in 1985, joined forces for a well-publicized art show suggested by the Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger who represented both of them. 

The play, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, artistic director of the Old Vic,  comes to MTC after a successful run at the London venue.

The conflict between the two artists is not, frankly, hugely compelling, despite McCarten and Kwei-Armah's efforts. On the one hand, there’s Basquiat trying to persuade Warhol, who had not been brush painting for years (using the silk screen process instead), to pick up his brushes again, And, on the other, there's Warhol who's infinitely more interested in filming the reluctant Basquiat at work. There’s more drama in the second act than the first, when Basquiat’s former girlfriend (the excellent Krysta Rodriguez in a small but lively role) bursts in needing money for rent and an abortion, and a friend of Basquiat’s, Michael Stewart, a fellow graffiti artist, lies near death in the hospital after being pummeled by police. Basquiat is deeply haunted by the thought that it could just as easily have been him.

There’s some understandable dramatic license in his script. For one thing, each of the men knew and admired the other, whereas the script has it that Bischofberger (a very amusing Erik Jensen) needed to use all his skills of manipulation to get the two to work together. Basquiat craved fame and recognition as much as Warhol, though there’s a sense in the script that he disdains Warhol’s commercialism. Still, the fundamental dynamics between Warhol and Basquiat ring true: respect mixed with envy on Warhol’s part, and a vastly different world view. 

Of rather greater import than the narrative of the play itself are the dynamic performances of Bettany and Pope. Bettany grows more interesting with each new project; he’s developed into such a fine character actor, and gives a highly convincing impersonation of Warhol. Pope is currently generating well-deserved buzz for his film, “The Inspection,” and here returns to the scene of his Tony-nominated MTC triumph in “Choir Boy,” with a highly charged turn. These versatile actors are reason enough to see the play. 

Anna Fleischle’s sensible set design, flashily lighted by Ben Stanton -- including the artists’ studios -- allows for Duncan McLean’s Basquiat/Warhol-inspired projections to fill the walls.  Given Warhol and Basquiat’s unique hair styles, I should acknowledge the good work of Karicean “Karen” Dick and Carol Robinson, the production’s wig designers. 

Lastly, a sidebar carp: this is the latest in an unfortunate trend of the audience entering the theater to an assault of loud music -- or, in the case of “Ohio State Murders” -- other amplified sounds. Whether the purpose is scene-setting -- in this case, a Studio 54 vibe -- or creating an immersive experience, it’s a needlessly abrasive and alienating gimmick. “Topdog/Underdog,” “Ain’t No Mo’,” and even the Public’s revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” for heaven’s sake, have all recently employed this irritating device. 

(Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th Street; or 212-239-6200; through February 11)

Photo by Jeremy Daniel: (l.-r.) Paul Bettany, Jeremy Pope