Derek Chariton has gotten really good at painting pictures of tomatoes.
He has to paint one in real time during each performance of Vince Melocchi’s play “Andy Warhol’s Tomato,” in which he stars as the artist at age 18.
Each tomato is cleared from the set to make room for the next. Tomato paintings are piling up backstage at the Pacific Resident Theatre — a legacy of Chariton’s evolution as a tomato artist since the show opened in August.
The play’s director, Dana Jackson, points to a vaguely rectangular red blur with choppy brushstrokes. “This was one of the first ones Derek did,” she says. “It took a while. So I suggested that he practice painting daily. So that when he gets up there he at least does it fluidly.”
Eventually, through practice and consultation with the designers, Chariton settled on a style: a plump, heart-shaped fruit, executed economically and whimsically.
In spite of the title and the startling quantity of tomato images it has generated, “Andy Warhol’s Tomato” really isn’t about tomatoes.
Playwright Melocchi grew up in Pittsburgh, also Warhol’s hometown. There’s a lot of local lore about places where the teenage Warhol hung out and works of art he may have left behind. (He was said to doodle on bar napkins while drinking Coca-Cola.) Out of these legends, Melocchi dreamed up a story about an unlikely friendship between Warhol — an art student at what was then called Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) — and a middle-aged bartender, Bones (played by Keith Stevenson). Thrown together by fate in the basement of Bones’ bar, they discover a shared passion for the beauty in ordinary, overlooked things. Like tomatoes.
While Melochhi was developing the play, Chariton and Stevenson participated in staged readings as Warhol and Bones. (All three are Pacific Resident members.) At first they had only a few scenes woven into a larger plot about the gentrification of working-class neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Everybody wanted more of the Warhol-Bones dynamic, which eventually crowded out everything else. A drama for eight became a two-hander.
That’s when things got really challenging, Chariton recalls. One issue was purely cosmetic: He’d shaved his head for a role (in “Sweat” at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts), and it wasn’t clear that he’d have enough hair by the “Tomato” opening to approximate Warhol’s 1940s coiffure — puffy at the top, brushed back on the sides. He took vitamin supplements. Although the prospect of a wig was floated, his hair ultimately came through.
The real difficulty lay deeper: “It’s hard to be someone else,” Chariton admits.
“I mean, playing a character is fun,” he goes on. “But to be someone who’s lived is like … I want to do them justice, but also I can’t judge them. And he was such an enigmatic person, and people revere him, and I’ve had so many people come and be like, ‘I knew Andy Warhol.’ But so much of that is Andy Warhol the great ‘60s Pop artist, and this play is not about that.”
Chariton, who graduated from UCLA in 2013, had yet to be born when Warhol died in 1987. He’d heard of Warhol, of course. “I’d seen the Marilyns,” he says.
To learn more, he turned to Audible. He listened to Warhol’s autobiography. He watched interviews and documentaries on YouTube.
He struggled to decide how much of Warhol’s distinctive persona to incorporate into his performance. For example, “Every time somebody would ask Andy a question in an interview, he would go, ‘Uhhhh ... Oh. Ahhhh ...’ and I was like, ‘Well, I can’t do that. That’ll be a three-hour show. And there’s a lot of uhhs written into the script, so I had to be like, ‘I’ll make them human uhhs and not Andy uhhs.”
He didn’t feel he’d hit the right balance until midway into the run. “Initially I was just doing Andy,” he says. “I even was doing a different voice. And at this point I’m in my own voice. His body and my voice.”
Even so, it’s live theater, so things continue to evolve. “It’s a different Andy every week,” he says.
The run was recently extended through Nov. 24, so there are at least a few more Andys to come.
And, of course, tomatoes.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, extended through Dec. 15 (check for exceptions)
Info: (310) 822-8392 or pacificresidenttheatre.com
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
You always can find our latest theater news and reviews at latimes.com/theater.
Support The Times’ coverage of local theater. Please consider a digital membership.