Before Andy Warhol there was Andy Warhola. Andy Warhola, at least as depicted in Vince Melocchi’s often refreshing “Andy Warhol’s Tomato,” was a vulnerable, often unsteady artist prone to panic attacks. Within this theatrical space, Andy exists as an aspiring commercial artist with some awareness of the artistic legend he is to become. The play begins with his literal awakening on a couch submerged in the basement of a Pittsburgh saloon. Attending to him is Mario Bonino, or Bones, the tavern’s often gruff and tough-as-nails owner. A nice guy at heart, Bones nonetheless loses his temper after Andy accidentally wrecks a favorite framed picture. In order then to make amends, Andy agrees to paint a new sign for the establishment.
There is something very endearing about this two-hander in large part due to director Steve Scott taking his time developing the two characters. On stage they make for a very effective odd-couple pairing with Alexander Wisniewski impressive in his professional debut as the young Andy Warhol. Besides having the artist’s mannerisms and hair, he also captures more than a little of Andy’s nervous energy and the appearance of budding creative genius. Working opposite him is Bryan Burke as the fictional Bones, a repressed saloonkeeper who pursues his art in secret out of fear of being thought “funny” by his patrons. It is a delight watching the rookie and veteran actor play off one another on stage.
The play itself is an ambitious undertaking that attempts to explore, among other things, the fragility of art; toxic masculinity and sexual repression. Some of these undertakings prove more successful than others. Watching Bones and Andy dance around the topic of sexuality (or, what it means to be “funny”) is especially poignant when one considers how hostile the world was to homosexuality in the late 1940s. Also arresting is watching the mutual attraction build between the two characters, with the young Andy Warhol decidedly more sexually present than his later public image. Less engaging, however, was the focus on Bones’ failure as an artist which begins to weigh down the later stages of the production. However even there, a greater point is expressed; that ultimately the stage has room to develop only one artist at a time. A slightly leaner “Andy Warhol’s Tomato” might be more easily consumed but this is still a production deserving your attention for at least its allotted fifteen minutes. (Noel Schecter)
Buffalo Theatre Ensemble at McAninch Arts Center, 425 Falwell Boulevard, Glen Ellyn, (630)942-4000, atthemac.org, $42. Through March 5.