Andy Warhol’s Tomato Reviewed by Terry Morgan

Through September 22

RECOMMENDED

Back in the ’60s, Andy Warhol was quoted as saying, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” — but his own fame clearly outpaced that prediction. He’s been the subject of films and books, and now playwright Vince Melocchi has crafted a play about the artist before he was celebrated, titled Andy Warhol’s Tomato. The world premiere production at Pacific Resident Theatre is a well-acted and entertaining addition to Warhol lore.

In 1946 small town Pennsylvania, college-age Andrew Warhola (Derek Chariton) has passed out from an anxiety attack on a city street. He wakes up in the back room of Bonino’s bar, temporarily tended to by the establishment’s owner, Bones (Keith Stevenson), until Andy’s brother can pick him up. The artistically ambitious, somewhat affected and not very covertly gay Andy and the gruff but kind blue-collar Bones couldn’t seem more different. However, as they spend more time together (Andy paints the sign for the bar), they realize that they’re both aspiring artists, each in his own way.

Chariton does a nice job of portraying Andy before the Warhol persona was fully formed, with a combination of artistic enthusiasm and curiosity mixed with touchy defensiveness and pointed humor. It’s an engaging and skilled performance, and I was struck by how credibly one could imagine this character moving to New York and becoming the artist we all know. Stevenson is excellent as Bones, and although his character, as written, is less flamboyant than Andy, he’s the heart of the play. Decency and the demanding struggle to be a good person don’t always sound charismatic, but Stevenson’s performance is affecting and subtle and seems true-to-life. This grounds the show and transforms it from what could have been a celebrity anecdote into an interesting human drama.

Dana Jackson’s sure-handed direction draws terrific work from her cast, and a moment toward the end of the show where Warhol’s sketches are projected onto part of the set provides the production with a lovely note of visual grace. Rich Rose’s detailed set — the backroom of a bar packed with stacked boxes of beer and whiskey and a convincing steam boiler — greatly adds to the story’s authenticity. Melocchi’s writing is funny and sometimes touching, and the piece is an enjoyable look at a lesser-known period of Warhol’s life. My only quibble is that sometimes it is a bit too “on the nose,” with specific explanations for various preeminent aspects of the artist’s work.

Overall, however, Andy Warhol’s Tomato is a strong and entertaining production about a unique artist. As Bones says in the play, “There is beauty in the mundane.” This show has found it.

Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Sep. 22. www.pacificresidenttheatre.com. Running time: approximately one hour and 20 minutes with no intermission.