Theater Review: “WARHOLCAPOTE” — Listening to Icons

WARHOLCAPOTE is a breezy 90 minute tribute to American pop and gossip.

WarholCapote: a non-fiction invention, adapted by Rob Roth from the words of Truman Capote and Andy Warhol. Directed by Michael Mayer. Scenic design by Stanley A, Meyer. Costume design by Clint Ramos. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Jon Gromada. Projections design by Darrel Maloney. Hair and wig design by Charles La Pointe. Make-up design by Cookie Jordan. Dialect coaching by Erika Bailey. Produced by American Repertory Theater at the Loeb Drama Center, Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA. through October 13.


Stephen Spinella and Dan Butler in “WARHOLCAPOTE.” Photo: Retjen Helene Photography.

By David Greenham

During one of the few quiet and reflective moments in Rob Roth’s new docudrama WARHOLCAPOTE, Andy Warhol (two-time Tony Award winner Stephen Spinella) sighs, “Some people are peculiar.”

ART’s production of Roth’s “nonfiction invention,” which is based on hours of cassette tape conversations between two of our most peculiar 20th century icons, is a breezy 90 minute tribute to American pop and gossip. WARHOLCAPOTE is another in a series of ART productions that has a possibility of running in New York.

Warhol admits he was obsessed with Capote in his diaries: “Truman was a magic person.” It turns out he wrote letters to Capote every day until the fateful time that Capote’s mother let Warhol into Capote’s apartment.

Capote, for his part, seems to also be obsessed with Capote. In his signature lispy twang Capote, in the form of Dan Butler, admits he has few expectations about Warhol and his potential for success: “He was one of those hopeless people; you know that nothing’s going to happen.”

Tony-nominated theater director Rob Roth (Beauty and the Beast) spent a decade wrangling the transcripts of the encounters between the two artists from the famously restrictive Warhol estate. The conversations are, pretty clearly, a hodgepodge of rambling narratives. Roth obviously worked hard to mine the jewels hidden in the mountains of chitter-chatter. There are a few great stories, mostly from Capote – for instance, an intimate moment with an indifferent Humphry Bogart is a scandalous treat. And Warhol’s innocence, his sincere wonder at the world and its celebrities, is refreshing in our cynical times. Each moment of gab, for him, turns out to disclose a discovery, an epiphany that ends with an earnest ejaculation of “That’s so great.”

Aside from the stand-out stories, WARHOLCAPOTE turns out be an effort to bring these two unusual creatures back to life; the result is a sort of walking and talking wax museum dedicated to the titular pop figures. My exposure to Warhol is mostly limited to his art, but Spinella, wigged and wafer thin, conveys a bewitchment with the prosaic that probably reflects his real-life character’s fawn-like behavior and hyper-attentiveness.

Capote as a person – or more like a full-blown persona – is familiar to me from the old Johnny Carson talk show, in which he would not so much be a “guest” as some sort of a talking creature that plopped in from another planet; he could regale the audience with his strange orations, seemingly for hours. Butler, who stepped in late in the rehearsal process, has the tougher challenge here. In addition to supplying arch prattle, he also has to dramatize Capote’s mental and physical decline. Butler captures the sad spectacle with creamy aplomb.

Roth’s adaptation of the conversations displays his  deft hand at moving the ‘story’ ahead — even when there’s very little forward movement in the material. He’s set the play in four scenes – each a sort of concentric circle heading toward Capote’s death. The first confab occurs in a kind of pod above Studio54, where you sense that the pair can be seen by others, but not heard. Capote is vibrant, getting to his feet to dance; he is ready to party. Warhol, ever the wallflower, seems to be fascinated and bemused by everything he surveys. “Isn’t it great?” he concludes at every opportunity.

The second meeting is set in a quiet restaurant where the gentle clink of dishware indicates there are others nearby The final two conversations are completely private – first at Warhol’s apartment, and finally at Capote’s, when his  decline has become undeniable.

Director Michael Mayer makes what he can of what little he has in terms of plot and dramatic tension. The “acting area” of two seated people is quite small. Stanley Meyer’s set is effective, providing just two mod swivel chairs and a small round table. The direction is particularly successful in suggesting the wayward reality, the playful randomness, of the conversations. Yet Mayer has somehow generated a narrative consistency out of the fragments, finding some order in the disjointed thoughts of his cultural stars. Warhol’s dazzlement never seems to waver, yet he remains a charismatic figure. “Some of my marbles are missing,” Warhol admits at one point, Mayer and Spinella have crafted a Warhol who is weirdly compelling because he is more than a little crazy.

In the event you look away from the protagonists, you will find plenty to appreciate. Set designer Meyer has created a lovely backdrop made up of wavy and reflective circular bands — or, more appropriately, images of oversized cassette tapes — in front of a large projection screen. Kevin Adams’ lights bounce off of the reflective bands and mod chairs, the latter bright orange or hot pink depending on the mood. Darrel Maloney’s edgy pop art projections properly suggest the counterculture time and place. Clint Ramos’ costumes and Jon Gromada’s sounds are, wisely, more muted than the visuals.

Capote supplies most of the literate entertainment in the script, packing in plenty of absurd and original bon mots. “It’s a very excruciating life to have to face that blank piece of paper every day,” he confesses at one point. WARHOLCAPOTE is anything but a blank piece of paper; we hear a writer (perhaps subconsciously) trying out material. There are some longueurs in the show, but Capote’s quicksilver wit comes to the rescue.

At one point, Warhol confesses, “I think everyone should be bugged and photographed.” Apparently he did just that in the final decade of his life. The cassettes exist, carefully catalogued, in Pittsburgh. They are imprisoned in a legal quagmire, tied tight in iron ribbons of privacy law restrictions, perhaps never to emerge. Thanks to Roth, we get a tiny earful of what’s there. Some may want to hear more — for me, this will probably be enough.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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