Today, before we open that theater curtain, I want you to join me... at an imaginary art gallery.
That’s right, bear with me a minute… just Imagine that you’re invited to a gallery to see a set of recently discovered sketches. They’re early works by pop art legend Andy Warhol. You want to check it out?
Playwright Vince Melocchi is counting on your fascination with the Warhol legend to fuel his play “Andy Warhol’s Tomato.”
The play is very loosely drawn from biographical details of Warhol’s beginnings in Pittsburgh. Mr. Melocchi imagines a series of encounters between a young, nervous Warhol and a blue-collar bartender named Bones in the basement of his dive bar. I won’t go into how these two characters are brought together because the playwright doesn’t invest too heavily in the logic and simply embraces the coincidence.
So you’re in this storeroom office below the tavern and - wouldn’t you know it? - Bones is just working on a new sign for the bar. What better excuse for a fledgling artist to spend a couple of days chatting. The coincidences don’t stop there. Our rough around the edges bartender? He’s actually a closeted writer - artistically if not sexually.
You see where this is going, right?
Here’s the trouble with relying on the myth of Andy Warhol for the basis of a play: like those sketches I asked you to imagine - you might be interested because they’re by a famous artist but that also might put a little too much expectation on the work.
How you feel about “Andy Warhol’s Tomato” will have a lot to do with what you expect from an origin story and how much you already know about Warhol.
Some of that works to the play’s advantage. Actor Derek Chariton’s Warhol is a wonderfully quirky play on the cliches of the iconic idea of Warhol. He fulfills our notion of the stereotype without completely collapsing into it. He’s sweet and odd and intriguing.
But there are rough edges to this sketch that aren’t the actor’s fault. Homophobia is a big plot point for this two man drama. You might find yourself holding your nose when the artist-finds-his-way tale transforms into a artist-finds-his-father-figure drama by way of an unwanted sexual advance. Here the faulty stereotype gets the better of the play and the playwright.
If you have even a passing familiarity with the artist, you’ll get the inside jokes: there’s the soup can, a coke bottle, 15 minutes of fame. But more than a little familiarity, like more than a little expectation will probably trip you up.
I’ll leave it to the art historians but the play’s artistic origin story for Warhol - a kind of blue collar ‘keep it simple’ ‘a tomato is beautiful because it’s a simple tomato’ message doesn’t really bear itself out in Warhol’s actual aesthetic vision. But there is something tantalizing about the origins of genius. Even though “Tomato” is a more of a sketch than a full canvas, if you can let go of expectations it’s a simple, sweet story.
“Andy Warhol’s Tomato” plays at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice through September 29th.
For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theatre newsletter with my picks on what to see in LA this fall, check out: kcrw.com/theater.