“Andy Warhol’s Tomato” imagines a defining moment in the development of an American icon

By Angie Fiedler Sutton

Derek Chariton (right) plays a young Andy Warhol coming into
his own in “Andy Warhol’s Tomato”
Photo by Teak Piegdon-Brainin

Andy Warhol is one of those artists whose reputation is bigger than life. His persona is so legendary, it’s hard to imagine who he was before he was “Warhol.” (Born Andrew Warhola, he later dropped the “a” in his last name and shortened his first to Andy.) But to think of him before he was the king of pop art is the basic concept behind “Andy Warhol’s Tomato,” written by Vince Melocchi and currently having its world premiere run at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice.

Taking place in the summer of 1946, the play is set when Warhol (Derek Chariton) has just finished his freshman year at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). Tossed out due to low grades, he’s taking a basic drawing course to try to get reinstated.

The play opens in Bonino’s bar near Pittsburgh, where Warhol has fainted outside. He’s being looked over by the owner of the bar, affectionately known as “Bones” (Keith Stevenson), who ends up offering Warhol the opportunity to do some work for him.

Over the course of 80 minutes, Warhol visits Bones several times and they become friends of a sort. Warhol learns that Bones writes in his spare time,
while Bones inspires Warhol to spin his art into Coke bottles and soup cans. During their exchanges, Warhol reveals his sexuality (widely debated in real life, but characterized as queer in the show) as subtly as he can.

Chariton plays Warhol in the over-the-top way one would expect. Every line is dripping with innuendo, and there’s a broad theatricality to every action — especially the anxiety attack we see in the latter half of the show. Considering Warhol’s extravagant personality in later years, however, it’s an intentional theatricality, tinged with skittishness, like he’s still trying to find what personality works best for him.

Meanwhile, Stevenson’s Bones is a gruff Italian who seems torn between wanting to support Warhol yet wanting to maintain his tough exterior. His character is the one that grows during the show, becoming more comfortable with talking to Warhol about the purpose of art and what defines an artist.

The tech is phenomenal — from an intricate set that pulls you into the basement of a bar to the deliberately slow lighting that helps symbolize Warhol’s gradual “coming out” to Bones.

On opening night the pacing, unfortunately, was a little sluggish. Director Dana Jackson had the pauses going on a little too long at times. Additionally, there were a few flubbed lines. (These issues have likely been tightened up as the show progresses, however.)

“But isn’t it always scary for artists to show each other their work?” you might ask, echoing Warhol’s own query in the show. “Andy Warhol’s Tomato” may on the surface be about Andy Warhol becoming “Andy Warhol,” but the theme is much more. It’s about what makes an artist an artist: how much work and effort it is to be one, and how much of yourself you put out there. It’s about how hard it is to trust your work, and how sometimes you just need someone in your corner. But mostly, it’s about how art is what you make of it, and if you call yourself an artist, you’re an artist.

“Andy Warhol’s Tomato” plays at Pacific Resident Theatre (703 Venice Blvd., Venice) at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 28. Tickets are $25 to $34 at pacificresidenttheatre.com.