No matter what one thinks of the art of Andy Warhol, like for instance…”A tomato soup can? I could do that,” the fact is that, in his all too short existence, he upended conventional notions of what constitutes art, as so many artists did in the Twentieth Century—Picasso, Dali, Pollak, Rothko, and more. His focus was firmly rooted in the popular culture of the mid-Twentieth Century with stuttering paintings of film stars, and the impressive variants of the iconic Campbell’s Tomato Soup Can. His output was large and his impact on the culture tremendous.
Vince Melocchi’s terrific new play, Andy Warhol’s Tomato, is set in the basement of Bonino’s Bar in Andy’s hometown of Pittsburgh in the summer of 1946, where he was a middling art student at Carnegie Tech. At lights up, Andy (the remarkable Derek Chariton), is lying semi-comatose after collapsing outside the bar. The owner, Mario “Bones” Bonino (Keith Stevenson in a complex, emotional performance), is big, kindly, and permanently fretful. That he has a good heart is clear. He lifted the boy off the sidewalk and put him down in the cool darkness of the bar’s basement where boxes and bottles of booze and beer are stored, and where he has a little desk with a big old-fashioned Burroughs adding machine for doing the sums necessary for his business. And he has more than a little distain for the customers he calls, “beer swilling mill hunks.”
When the boy revives, it is clear at once that he is frail and unusual. Andy is mannered, has a fey, sly smile, and a go-to pose of cupping his elbow in his hand. He displays an appealing earnestness in his nature. He is hesitant and easily spooked. A failing art student, Andy is working on a last-chance portfolio. Bones, bluff and grudgingly kind, keeps his deeper feelings and ambitions hidden. Alone in the basement, Andy peruses photos that hang on the upstage wall and inadvertently drops one breaking the frame. To assuage the barkeep’s anger, Andy begs to be able pay him back for the offense and Bones puts him to the task of creating a new sign for the bar.
Under the keen direction of Dana Jackson, the relationship that develops between the two men, who are so radically different, has its fits and starts. Andy and Bones are seemingly from different universes, yet first impressions gradually change. I don’t believe it serves to detail more of the action of the play. That is for the audience to discover and to be touched by. Suffice it to say that the road to the climax of any good play is fraught with twists, turns, conflict, and misunderstandings that ratchet up dramatic tension.
This Pacific Resident Theatre production is handsomely staged with technical direction by Mateo Rudich. The scenic design by Rich Rose, with lighting and projection design by Andrew Schmedake, is splendid and filled with telling details. The stock of imbibables stacked on shelves and on the floor seems absolutely authentic for the times, and a big furnace hulks upstage. Sturdy stairs that lead to the bar take a right-hand bend and up. The costume design by Keilani Gleave is period perfect and supports character and action. And the always-excellent sound designer, Christopher Moscatiello, does it again with a spot-on playlist of post-war cool jazz. And Teak Peigdon manages the stage with confident authority.
On a Thursday night, the audience applause was long and loud and demanded the actors return for another bow. Andy Warhol’s Tomato, a don’t-miss winner of a show produced by Sara Newman-Martins and Erin Soares, continues through September 22 at Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd. in Venice, California.