Monday, June 13, 2022

Tease: Andy Warhol in Iran

Nima Rakhshanifar and Henry Stram in Andy Warhol in Iran. (Photo: Daniel Rader)

The first play to be mounted on Barrington Stage Company’s St. Germain stage in three years is a two-hander, Andy Warhol in Iran, inspired by the artist’s 1976 trip to Tehran to snap Polaroids of the Empress Farah Pahlavi, the Shah’s wife, in preparation for painting her portrait. (Barrington Stage commissioned the piece, which is one of several new plays promised in this post-COVID season.) The two characters are Warhol – played by Henry Stram, who appeared in Richard Jones’s productions of The Hairy Ape and Judgment Day at the Park Avenue Armory – and a revolutionary named Farhad (Nima Rakhshanifar). Farhad is part of a group that hatches the idea of kidnaping Warhol from his hotel room and holding him hostage as a way of telegraphing their cause. Their scheme isn’t worked out very well, and neither, I have to say, is the plot of Brent Askari’s play, where the kidnaping is implausibly amateurish (Farhad wields a toy gun painted to make it look less obvious) and Warhol continues to cower in fear even after he figures out that he’s in absolutely no danger.

Askari is going for a drama of ideas, and some of them tickle the imagination. One is Warhol’s observation that the revolutionary process – whereby a rebellion opposes the repression of a regime and then repeats it as soon as it gets into power – is just as repetitive as the patterns in his paintings. Another is that trauma never really deserts the body, which Askari applies to both the effect on Farhad of his father’s fate at the hands of the Shah’s army and the lingering psychological consequences of Andy’s being shot by Valerie Solanas in 1968. (I assume that Askari would offer his PTSD as a rationale for Andy’s unabated hysteria even after he figures out that Farhad isn’t wielding a real firearm, but his unchanging affect just plays as faulty dramatic structure.) Also Andy explains that the distinguishing factor of artists is their ability to see more clearly what’s in front of their eyes, which is the reason he can spot the phony gun. I liked all of these notions, but they’re conceits, not actual ideas, because they’re not linked to the core of the play. And that core is a dramatic cliché. Andy Warhol in Iran belongs to that genre of play in which two strangers in opposition to one another and in stressful conditions undergo a profound change in response to the short time they spend together. What these two men discover, of course, is their common humanity. Warhol, famously at an emotional remove from the life around him, is moved to help Farhad get away after the kidnaping plan collapses, while Farhad stops seeing Andy as merely a spoiled, narcissistic artist and navel gazer.

The play, directed by Skip Greer, is watchable but it doesn’t amount to much. Askari would have to develop both these characters as well as doing a more thorough job of dramatizing their trajectories to turn Andy Warhol in Iran into more than an intellectual – and emotional – tease. Meanwhile, as Warhol Stram blows his opportunity to find an interesting route into one of the twentieth century’s most intriguing figures of mystery by reading most of his lines in the same freaked-out tone. Rakhshanifar, a young actor with whose work I was unfamiliar, is more convincing, but the play doesn’t draw him intricately enough to sustain him over eighty minutes.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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