Andy Warhol’s Tomato is a portrait of the artist as a young man. Warhol, who came to fame in the 1960s, is the subject of Vince Melocchi’s new play, a two-hander set in Pittsburgh, the playwright’s home town. It was there, Melocchi reports in a program note, that he was told that the teenaged Warhol had drawn pictures on napkins in a local bar in exchange for Coca-Colas. Although that bit of urban folklore turned out to be untrue, it inspired Melocchi to write the piece.
The playwright sets his 80-minute, world-premiere drama in the basement of Bonino’s bar, a neighborhood joint frequented by steel-workers. Mario “Bones” Bonino (Keith Stevenson), is a blue-collar guy himself, a hulking, tough-minded Italian-American with a secret life that leaks out when he inter-acts with the youthful Andy Warhol (Derek Chariton).
The time is the summer of 1946 and the sickly, fey but gifted Warhol has passed out in front of Bones’s bar (in real life Warhol suffered from a rare neurological disorder). The gruff but compassionate Bones has carried Warhol down to his basement to recover. What follows is an intriguing, compelling character study, one that catches you up in its truth and sensitivity as the two apparent opposites begin to develop a kinship.
Warhol’s prime possession is his sketchbook. Filled with his drawings, he hopes it will be his ticket to gaining admission to Carnegie Tech University. Bones at first is cynical about Warhol’s talent. He calls the kid Picasso and doubts whether he will ever be able to make his mark on the art world. But he is forced to change that assessment when he gets to see Warhol in action, painting a sign for his bar. What could easily have been a cliché, banal object becomes in Warhol’s hands a thing of striking beauty and originality.
As for Warhol, he too begins to appreciate and respect Bones, especially when he discovers that this seemingly crude, macho guy has an artistic side. All his life Bones has not only loved literature but yearned to write it. But because in his circles just admitting that you know how to type marks you as a fag, Bones has had to write in secret, down here in his basement, not telling anyone what he was doing. Full of doubts about his worth as a writer, he is buoyed by Warhol’s positive response to his work.
The two-would-be, struggling artists begin to bond in an us-against-the-world way, a development that is almost destroyed when the homosexual Warhol can’t hold back and makes a pass at Bones. How the latter handles this erotic move takes their relationship to a new and deeper level.
The skill of Melocchi’s writing is matched by the remarkable acting work by Stevenson and Chariton. Together they breathe life into every line of Melocchi’s text, creating flesh-and-blood characters that hold you in thrall from start to finish.
Keith Stevenson, Derek Chariton
Lighting/Projections: Andrew Schmedake. Set: Rich Rose. Sound: Christopher Moscatiello. Costumes: Keilani Gleave.