There is nothing more thrilling than watching paint dry in Red, the riveting bio-drama by John Logan about the cerebral abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) and his determined young assistant. The Tony Award-winning play arrives in Washington in a sublimely detailed and acted production directed by the Goodman Theatre’s Robert Falls.
Mr. Logan’s play bears comparisons to the Stephen Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George in its depiction of an obsessed artist risking something revolutionary and taking viewers where they never imagined they’d ever want to go. And also in the play’s revealing of the intimate and territorial relationship between the artist and his paintings.
Red takes place in the late 50s in New York, where trailblazers such as Jackson Pollock are dead and Mark Rothko (Edward Gero) strives for greatness and greater understanding amid the dawn of the pop art era as exemplified by Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. His determination to disturb, to take people deeper into the void seems somehow both grand and slightly out of tune with the times, as pop artists celebrate irreverence and “instant” art.
In his studio, which seems more mausoleum than atelier in Todd Rosenthal’s exquisitely specific set, Rothko is working on a commission of murals for the posh Four Seasons Restaurant at the Seagram Building, an ode to capitalism built by Philip Johnson and Mies Van Der Rohe. These “red” paintings, beautifully recreated for the production, are not meant to stimulate the palate or complement the floral arrangements. Rothko wants them to carry an accreted power, inciting a fury of emotions as the eye travels from painting to painting, the red squares and rectangles moving from a portal into a strange new world to a rapidly shrinking window of hope.
At first, the paintings seem a sellout to Rothko’s assistant Ken (Patrick Andrews), until he begins to understand that the artist intends to build a temple to contemplation and despair in the middle of an expense-account restaurant. Crazy and extreme as it seems, this does not stop Ken from challenging Rothko at every turn, debating the meaning and purpose of art, as well as the eternal struggle to balance the Apollonian quest for restraint and enlightenment with the Dionysian imperative of misrule and abandon.
Ken calls Rothko on his hypocrisies–that he derides rich businessmen and bankers but keeps a strict 9 to 5 work ethic, bankers’ hours, and that he and his fellow painters gleefully stomped on Cubism to forge their own style but Rothko is loathe to give up his place for the next generation of artists. In one dazzling exchange, they even try to one-up each other with rapid-fire definitions of the color red.
Rothko rises majestically to these challenges, armed with a daunting arsenal of knowledge and institutional memory that ranges from Renaissance and Impressionist artists, to Nietzsche, Greek mythology and classical music. The breadth of his intellect exhilarates and the experience recalls the brainy wordplay of Tom Stoppard’s finest works, but what gets you in the gut is Rothko talking about his paintings, his art.
When we first meet Rothko he is sitting in an Adirondack chair furiously smoking and staring at one of his canvasses–never has being sedentary looked so active. “What do you see? What do you see?” he demands when Ken walks into the studio, a phrase that becomes at once a motif and a sacred incantation throughout the play.
Mr. Gero and Mr. Andrews work magic with the dark poetry of Mr. Logan’s play. Mr. Gero’s lived-in demeanor and thundering, declamatory style make him seem like a classic in contrast to the honed Mr. Andrews, poised on the cusp of the go-go, hipster 1960s. Mr. Gero’s elegant diction and El Greco gaze bring Rothko to roaring life but also make him so much a product of his age–radically different from the efficient motions and clipped, often flip speech of Mr. Andrews’ Ken.
This bittersweet ceding of the future from the elder to the younger artist figures prominently in Red. The most piercing lesson, however, is realizing that applying brush to canvas is a small part of the process, although Rothko does note that “there’s tragedy in every brush stroke.” There is the yeoman’s work of stretching canvas, mixing paint, and cleaning, which both Rothko and Ken execute with military precision and a certain ritualistic grace.
Beyond that, there is the looking, the watching, the listening to what the painting tells you–what it says it needs, when it starts to pulsate and work its way into your soul. In Red, Rothko displays not just a paternalistic bond with his work, but a protectiveness. Although he wills these paintings into existence and he knows they must be viewed to come alive, he worries about how they will survive, exposed to the naked gaze, the uneducated eye. His art is not decor, but a way to beat back the blackness that threatens to swallow us all.
by John Logan
Directed by Robert Falls
A co-production by Goodman Theatre in Chicago and Arena Stage
Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard
Running time: Approximately 1 hour, 40 minutes with no intermission
- Christian Barclay . WomanAroundTown
- Alan Zilberman . BrightestYoungThings
- Trey Graham . Washington City Paper
Jonathan Padget . MetroWeekly
- Jenn Larsen . WeLoveDC
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Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
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