at Cafe Voltaire

Andy Warhol’s life is the stuff of great drama–or at least great soap opera. He was an ambitious, manipulative, deeply insecure genius who maintained monomaniacal control over nearly every element of his career (he reportedly telephoned his press agent every morning) and surrounded himself with desperately needy “superstars” who would do almost anything to stay in his good graces; his fame rested on the broken spirits of a trail of unacknowledged wannabes.

Warhol moved into the Factory, at 231 E. 47th Street in New York, in late 1963 and stayed until early 1968, when he moved downtown to Union Square. Like the rest of the 60s, Warhol’s years at the Factory were full of turmoil, desperation, and brilliance. Every element of his home and studio, from the floor to the toilet handles, was painted silver by Billy Linich; the Factory was part salon, part gallery, part opium den. Warhol and his endlessly evolving harem of drugged-out devotees not only created some of the most important works of the pop-art era but essentially redefined art in American culture. From the oversize, nailed-shut Brillo boxes to the eight-hour silent film of the Empire State Building (“It’s an eight-hour hard-on,” Warhol gushed) to the multimedia extravaganzas at his discotheque, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the Factory seemed intent on destroying the division between high and low culture once and for all.

It would seem nearly impossible to turn these vibrant, troubling years into boring theater, yet this is precisely what playwright and director Michael Flores has done. His two-and-a-half-hour Andy Warhol: The Factory Years is like a staged version of the Bolshevik revolution minus the gunfire.

Some of Warhol’s entourage here are drawn from history–Edie Sedgwick, Brigid Berlin (the Factory’s Dr. Feelgood), and Ondine, the gay pope of New York–and some are apparently fictionalized amalgams of various historical figures, such as Art Hypster, who seems to fill the manager/assistant role that people like Gerard Malanga, John Giorno, and Jed Johnson had through the years. But the atmosphere at this Factory is inert. Despite the endless injections Brigid Berlin gives them, this group seem more like a pack of college-graduate slackers than avant-garde drug addicts. They hang out, shoot up, slop an occasional squeegee across a silk screen, make a movie or two, and generally get along just fine. Even Edie Sedgwick–who Warhol described as having more problems than anybody he’d ever met–is here portrayed as a kind of adventurous corporate secretary.

Most problematic of all, because the play’s Warhol seems to have little or no influence on those around him, the interpersonal wars that characterized Factory life are entirely missing. This is particularly curious because Flores states on the back of the program that “so much product reflecting the period is too nostalgic–too “cleaned up,”‘ a criticism that can be leveled against his own work.

It doesn’t help that Flores’s notion of art history is somewhat garbled. Having one of the characters disparage the art world at the top of the show by saying that “galleries want something abstract” ignores the prominence of pop art on the New York scene by the middle 60s: it left abstract expressionism in its wake. Jasper Johns had phenomenal success with his one-man show “Flags, Targets, and Numbers,” at the Leo Castelli Gallery, in 1957. The Museum of Modern Art even bought four of his paintings; his unheard-of success at age 27 was a particular sore spot for Warhol. To say that “the art world fought Andy every step of the way,” as Flores does on the back of the program, is true only in part. Certainly some critics dismissed Warhol as a charlatan, and he did his best to maintain his status as an outsider, even showing porno movies at a rented theater in New York (he called this “Andy Warhol’s Theatre: Boys to Adore Galore”). Still, critics raved about his 1965 showing at the Sonnabend Gallery in Paris, which broke all attendance records. Although his canvases generally weren’t selling, Warhol secured a place in the art world despite himself.

This production is further hampered by a self-conscious, inhibited cast, with the notable exception of Jimmy Wise as the absurdly swishy Ondine. Nearly every gesture here is halfhearted–the show seems more like a long rehearsal than a finished performance.

Of course, similar performances were the stuff of Warhol’s early films, which were full of self-conscious people garbling their lines. But for Warhol such intentional understaging represented not only a subtle critique of Hollywood banality but a fascination with ordinary reality. His camera recorded whatever happened (in fact, his screen tests consisted of planting the hapless actor before the camera for three minutes, giving him no instruction whatsoever). Warhol’s films, despite their pretentious veneers, are unflinchingly honest, often cruelly so.

The Factory Years, on the other hand, is a stand-in for history. Everything onstage is fake, from the actors to the wall of aluminum foil supposedly duplicating the Factory’s all-silver decor to the needle-less syringe with which the actors pretend to shoot up. Had the show made a point of these discrepancies, revealing the banality and phoniness of so much “realistic” drama just as Warhol attacked similar qualities in art, The Factory Years might have transcended its petty, insular concerns. Instead this production, like so much theater in Chicago, refuses to consider the larger social and cultural context that defines it, turning potentially subversive material into forgettable pulp.