Monday, April 19, 2010


Red is a color that stands for passion, romance, and rage, for danger, sin, as in satan, and is, at least in some sense, the color of life. Is it also, in some sense, too, the color of death? These associations and quite a few others figure prominently in the new Broadway play simply called "Red," which captures something of the fierceness and intensity of the late abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko.

In fact, this is one of the most focused and one-note plays I have ever seen. But I mean that in a good sense. It is a journey inside the mind of an artist who is obsessed with his art, to the exclusion of just about everything else. Indeed, we are alerted to this fact near the end of the play when Rothko's young assistant Ken reminds his boss that Rothko has never bothered to learn anything about Ken, nothing about his family, his likes and dislikes, even what he himself is trying to paint when he isn't assisting Rothko. But Rothko simply doesn't care about Ken as a person. All Rothko demands is that Ken help him to get his own work done, to realize his artistic vision on canvas. Which really helps to make this an exhilarating show. It's just about the art and the thinking that makes the art possible. Rothko at one point in the play says that painting is only 10% of being an artist. The rest is thinking. And, of course, since this is a play, a lot of this thinking happens out loud in the exchanges between the two men. But it's thinking that is at turns riveting, outrageous, and even absurd that has the effect of provoking the spectator to think, too. Which seems good and certainly makes for an enjoyable and memorable show.

The story takes place in the late 1950s when Rothko is working on a record-setting commission for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the Seagram Building. He is to receive $35,000 for nine panels and begins the project eager to do something unprecedented and to make a lot of money at the same time. The work goes well but his fear that he may end up pandering to popular taste causes him to withdraw the panels and to return the money. They are eventually contributed to the Tate Gallery in London. The important part of this context, though, is how uncompromising Rothko is about his art. Money means relatively little. How the art will be viewed and whether it will be regarded seriously as art matters most.

Finally, let me just say that the two actors who play Rothko and Ken are Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne. Both are stupendous. And it is they, even more than the very good play by John Logan, that makes you want to see it again.

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