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Review: In Sizzling City Theatre Season Finale, Andy Warhol Debates Art and Politics in Iran


Blending bold brushstrokes of historic events with insightful artistic license, Andy Warhol in Iran prods and pokes at a topical piñata, unleashing debates over art, politics, colonialism, revolution … all in 80 taut minutes, between two unlikely adversaries.

Today, Andy Warhol and Iran in the same sentence hardly computes with what we know about the enigmatic artist, a Pittsburgh native with a museum devoted to his work, and the Islamic Republic of 2024.

In the Brent Askari play now at City Theatre, dissimilarities meld into harmonious themes during a close encounter that defies expectations.

Jeffrey Emerson as the title pop artist in Andy Warhol in Iran, City Theatre’s 2023-24 season finale. (Image Kristi Jan Hoover)

The truth of the play may seem stranger than the fiction.

Andy Warhol in Iran harks back to 1976, when the artist, ensconced in a luxurious Tehran hotel room and encased in eccentricities and insecurities, is on the comeback trail after a shooting that nearly killed him. He is the invitee of the Shah of Iran’s wife, there to create Polaroids of her, to be used in one of his colorful celebrity portrait series. 

The story takes a turn when a young Iranian arrives on the scene, to force-feed Warhol what he claims to have avoided until now: a realistic world view.

“You are shallow,” states the Iranian, a revolutionary who intends to kidnap the artist.

“That’s true,” Warhol replies.

In the next 80 minutes, both men – one a 47-year-old, world-famous artist, the other, a radicalized student  – will learn that neither is what they might seem on the surface. 

In Warhol’s case, one of the most telling insights into his psyche is about his soup-can paintings, which we may take for granted as a measure of his applied concept of “Business Art.” In an opening monologue, actor Jeffrey Emerson as the white-wigged Warhol explains that all things have beauty, using as an example his 1964 film Sleep, of a man sleeping for five hours (it would have been eight, he says, but he ran out of film). 

Later, however, when explaining the beauty in Campbell’s cans, he says when you grow up on soup made of water mixed with Heinz Ketchup salt and pepper, a can of soup is a beautiful thing to behold.

When differences would seem to overwhelm the characters in his two-hander, Askari has one or the other reveal something surprising about himself.

It might be a knowledge classic literature, recited by the unnamed Iranian – Farhad in your program, played by Arian Rad, an actor and singer/songwriter from upstate New York. Both men are inspired into revelations by a mutual combination of fear and unexpected empathy. 

Fahrad is the member of a radical group that has chosen in Warhol a man whose fame and infamy may give them leverage.  

Before Fahrad arrives on the scene, Emerson’s Warhol explains that the artist has accepted the Iran gig because he has bills to pay, mouths to feed and he likes nice things (Iranian caviar is bountiful and inexpensive, he gushes). He creates art of and for rich and famous people. End of story.

Farhad, dressed to deliver room service, bursts in on Warhol and declares he is holding him captive, waiting on his comrades to whisk him away. They will use Warhol’s fame as a conduit to expose the brutality of the Shah and his Imperial Guard.

There is plenty of humor in their incongruity, this American, known as a dispassionate observer, and an ardent young man, risking all for 15 minutes of fame – not for himself, but to speak out against tyranny.

Defiantly clueless and apolitical, Warhol lets us know that “politics is abstract,” and therefore a threat to his obliviousness. Outraged, Farhad has to tell him what should be obvious: Politics is people.

In the course of the play, both men are made to expand their universes of thought.

Arian Rad plays a would-be kidnapper in Andy Warhol in Iran, at City Theatre. (Image: Kristi Jan Hoover)

They find commonality in pain that runs deep, both physically and mentally. For the Iranian, the violence in his homeland has radicalized a student with an apparently poetic soul. Warhol has scars, too. The shooting victim of an anti-male radical feminist, the artist suffered damage to multiple organs and was at one point declared dead. He had to wear a protective corset for the rest of his life.

Eight years later, Warhol was invited to Iran.

The Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a friend to the United States tied to oil production, and his wife had been amassing what today is estimated as a $3 billion art collection, and they wanted to add a Warhol original. 

It was at a glamorous White House dinner given by then President Gerald Ford, honoring the Iranian leader, that Warhol was invited to Tehran. 

It is also true, and also figures into the play, that there were anti-Shah protestors outside the event, raging against the U.S. backing of Iran’s brutal regime. 

The play spells out, in words and projections, the politics and outside interference that put the Shah in power, and what led to the revolt that brought about the theocracy of today.

It is an extraordinarily compact history lesson, channeled through two men who would seem to be worlds apart. 

Just when you empathize more with one than the other, we are forced to see the flip side: Farhad is a freedom fighter, but he is denying Warhol his freedom. Warhol claims to be apolitical, but he has used images of Chairman Mao and Richard Nixon in his art (he claims that Nixon sent the IRS after him for the unflattering portrait).

As Warhol, Emerson has a role that comes with certain expectations, mostly visual. Warhol created a dispassionate veneer that works as a blank canvas, giving license to others to paint their own character portraits of him. This is the third City production that has had Warhol as a character, and on Broadway in 2022-23, Paul Bettany played the artist in another intimate historical fiction, The Collaboration, about Warhol’s work with Jean-Michael Basquiat

Emerson’s Warhol starts out playful and witty, introducing the story we are about to see. During his encounter with Rad’s Farhad, Emerson must forgo the aloof airs we associate with the artist, and humanize him. We see him as frightened or disdainful, empathetic and insightful. The play also offers a fresh look at Warhol’s impoverished Pittsburgh roots, and why he never looked back after leaving for New York.

Rad has a role we may think of as archetypal: a young man in revolt who, under other circumstances, might be a pacifist – or maybe an artist. His Farhad has suffered horrible losses, has tied himself to a cause, yet he continually flashes a gentle, artistic side.

They make for fascinating adversaries. The serve-and-volley nature of the play gives their dialogue a debate-like quality, but that’s the very nature of two forces in opposition. Their expressed movement on the issues of art, freedom and politics – back and forth and sideways, with a middle ground elusive yet always in sight – is among the strengths of the production.  

Scenic designer Michael Raiford makes his City Theatre debut with a set that spreads the Main Stage, giving the actors room to roam, and projection space that aligns with both wall-divider patterns and a square painting series, a la Warhol. Costumes by Susan Tsu are thoughtful from wig to shoes, helpful to illustrate Warhol’s persnickety nature.

The play is notable not just for its title, as tensions between Iran and Israel heat up in the Middle East. This is just the third production of Andy Warhol in Iran, and the last for director Marc Masterson as a co-artistic director. He announced that on June 30, he will retire from the City leadership role, leaving Monteze Freeland and Clare Drobot as the company’s co-ADs.’

In a career full of milestones, Andy Warhol in Iran is another notch in Masterson’s belt of unflinching, thought-provoking productions, with a flair for humor amid the drama. 

No doubt, the Iran in the title of this play, City Theatre’s season finale, is provocative on its own. In furtherance of how the people of Iran have fared since the revolution, an image of a female victim of the current theocracy is flashed at the end of the play. (For those who don’t know her name, the program’s “A brief history of Iran,” by dramaturg Mehrnaz Tiv, is a must read.)

With Andy Warhol in Iran, playwright Brett Askari has harnessed the power of art to reimagine what might otherwise be a footnote in history, and created the possibility of empathy winning the day over enmity. 

If only. 


Andy Warhol in Iran will be on City Theatre’s Main Stage, 1300 Bingham Street, South Side, through May 12, 2024. For tickets and information on special events, visit or call 412-431-CITY (2489).

Before Friday’s opening night performance of Andy Warhol in Iran, PA State Rep. Dan Frankel (along with Monteze Freeland and Clare Drobot, behind Frankel) paid tribute to retiring co-artistic director Marc Masterson. Frankel’s father, the late Robert Frankel, worked with Masterson in the early 1990s. As president of City Theatre, Robert Frankel chaired the capital campaign that funded the 50-year-old company’s move to its current home, on the South Side.
Season Finale ‘Andy Warhol in Iran’ Marks Masterson’s Final Chapter as a City Theatre Artistic Director