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The Pain of Fame, With Sondheim, Warhol and Capote as Guides

Not that there aren’t plenty of drolly phrased aperçus to be gleaned from Michael Mayer’s neon-souled production, whose entire cast is Stephen Spinella (as Warhol, Pop artist extraordinaire) and Dan Butler (as Capote, novelist and social moth). For better or worse, the star-centric Warhol turned out to be the modern artist who got the future right.


Dan Butler, left, and Stephen Spinella as the title characters in Rob Roth’s play “WARHOLCAPOTE.”

Gretjen Helene Photography

Some of his observations in Mr. Roth’s script, largely culled from 80 hours of recorded conversations between its two characters (who both died in the 1980s), are so presciently on-target they leave you reeling. Listen, for example, to an aside Warhol delivers about his ever-trusty cassette recorder.

Everybody he came in contact with, he says, wound up performing for the tape. “You couldn’t tell which problems were real,” he said, “and which problems were exaggerated. Better yet, the people telling you the problems couldn’t decide anymore if they were really having the problems or just performing.”

Did you hear that, Kardashians and Real Housewives of everywhere? Decades before you became TV stars by just being “yourself,” Warhol had predicted your future.

As might have been expected, “WARHOLCAPOTE” is filled with gleefully exchanged gossip. Some of it is merely lubricious; some of it verges on the profound. Capote recalls Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis telling him, “Because of an accident of history, I’ll always be an object of curiosity, like something you see in a freak show.”

That Warhol and Capote were kindred sideshow attractions may make you nostalgic for an era in which artists and writers were considered worthy of mass fascination. But Mr. Roth’s play, which doesn’t always disguise its cut-and-paste seams, turns out to be about how public freakishness leads its victims to the solace of anesthesia.


Stephen Spinella as Andy Warhol in “WARHOLCAPOTE,” a play drawn from hours of taped conversations between the artist and writer.

Gretjen Helene Photography

Capote found it in pills and liquor; Warhol, in a willed detachment that transformed emotional peaks and valleys into glazed, flatline curiosity. Both men turned their ways of battling anxiety into copiously documented public personas that would seem to be easy to imitate but are not.

Mr. Spinella, best known for his passionate, Tony-winning performances in the “Angels in America” plays, here has the harder task, finding the affect in Warhol’s affectlessness. And his owlish, little-boy-lost Andy only sporadically convinces. (In wig and spectacles, he reminded me more of the superstar book editor Robert Gottlieb.)

The more combustible Capote, who wore his psychodrama like a cascading pocket handkerchief, provides more obvious actorly substance. And Mr. Butler, who replaced Leslie Jordan late in rehearsals, has moments of raw, bleeding anguish that make you ache for the cyclone of self-destruction that his character became. Of course, as Warhol might have pointed out, this Capote is performing for a tape recorder.

The pain that courses through Ms. Friedman’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” which I saw in an earlier version at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London four years ago, is authentic enough to keep its audience bathed in tears. Never mind that Mr. Furth’s book — adapted from a 1934 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart and a 16-performance flop on Broadway — remains a compendium of heartbreak-of-success clichés.

There’s a reason that these clichés — about shedding your integrity and identity on the road to stardom — have never been displaced: They still apply. The hard truth that celebrity, or the maintenance of it, tends to make its possessors more and more superficial is the reason that novels about the rich and famous so often feel flat. (I would argue that Jacqueline Susann, the author of celebrity potboilers like “Valley of the Dolls,” was as right in her way as Warhol was.)

Ms. Friedman, best known as a star of the London musical stage and a veteran interpreter of Sondheim, appreciates the depths of feeling to be dredged from such shallows. And she allows the layers of ambivalence in this exquisite score to color everything onstage.

In following the show’s chronologically reversed path of a successful film producer — from middle age in Hollywood to his idealistic youth in Manhattan — the production brings out the sharpness in the showbiz satire. (This aspect is wittily enhanced by Soutra Gilmour’s time-capsule sets and costumes and by Tim Jackson’s effortlessly integrated choreography.)

But what makes this “Merrily” transcendent is the conviction and nuance of the three performers at its center, who embody a friendship under siege. They include two happy holdovers from the London production: Mark Umbers, as Franklin Shepard, the charismatic composer who goes Hollywood, and Damian Humbley, as Charley Kringas, his longtime pal and collaborator.

New to the cast (although you wouldn’t know it) is Eden Espinosa as Mary, the alcoholic novelist in love with Frank. Supported by a fine-tuned ensemble, they are all close to flawless in navigating Mr. Sondheim’s intricate melody lines. More important, they use the splintered music to convey a fractious but blessed interconnectedness that makes their retrospective coming apart all the more poignant.

For the first time in my experience, Frank is the beating, shattered heart of the show. That’s partly a matter of how Ms. Friedman has ingeniously framed her production. But it’s also a consequence Mr. Umbers’s startlingly sympathetic performance of a (usually unsympathetic) man to whom fame happens.

“Who says lonely at the top?” Frank sings in the show’s opening Hollywood party scene. Mr. Umbers lends the lyric a polyurethane sheen. But the varnish doesn’t quite disguise the hopeful, bewildered young man he will become as his life — to borrow from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who knew from fame and disenchantment — is borne back ceaselessly into a reproachful past.

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