Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Red_Molina-and-RedmayneAlfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as Ken, his young assistant(Johan Persson photo)

NEW YORK – The commercial theater is often accused of pandering to the mediocre. Then, out of the blue, the unexpected happens: a brilliant new play, "Red," by John Logan, arrives from London’s Donmar Warehouse and restores everyone’s faith that, once again, the fabulous invalid is still alive and well.

Mr. Logan’s "Red," at the Golden Theater on West 45th Street through June 27, is a rare work that uses originality and theatrical inventiveness to explore what could easily be a static subject: the genius of the abstract painter Mark Rothko (1903-70), best known for the large canvases that he filled with designs of rich and somber-colored rectangular shapes. The play, a stunning two-hander, features two magnificent performances by Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as Ken, his young assistant.

Mr. Logan, an accomplished screenwriter ("Gladiator," "Sweeney Todd" and "The Aviator"), picks up Rothko in 1958 in his studio, impeccably realized by designers Christopher Oram (scenery and costumes) and Neil Austin (lighting). At 55, he is a mature success, famous, lauded by such fellow artists as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, as well as by the critics and public at large. Joseph Seagram and Sons, the Canadian beverage company, completed a new building on Park Avenue and awarded him a $35,000 commission to provide a series of paintings for the building’s luxe restaurant, The Four Seasons.

For assistance in carrying out the commission, Rothko hires a fledgling artist, Ken (Mr. Redmayne). In the beginning, the young man has no idea what he has gotten himself involved in. Rothko is a demanding despot of a boss who keeps bankers’ hours; and, besides having Ken help with mixing the paints and stretching the canvases, he takes advantage of him to fulfill any other whim he might fancy. He uses him as a sounding board, whipping boy and gofer for coffee and Chinese lunches. Obsessive only about his work, Rothko can at times be paranoid, insufferable and abusive.

Yet, over a two-year period, squeezed into a tight intermissionless 90 minutes of playing time, Rothko gives Ken and the audience a rare insight into the creative process that no art school could deliver. Between harangues, he dispenses his thoughts, feelings and a few secrets about the making of his art: how his paintings are all about form, space and color; how he doesn’t trust "natural" light because it can’t be controlled; how he does everything to "protect" his art; how he wants his paintings to elicit an emotional response from the viewer. "They should make them ‘pulsate,’" he says.

Mr. Molina’s performance envelops Rothko completely; tall, broad-chested and slightly ungainly, he stalks the stage like a skilled hunter in search of his prey, which, in this case, is the canvas. Mr. Molina plays Rothko with his head shaved, his glaring eyes peering out from large glasses framed by dark eyebrows.

In 1949, Rothko became ensorcelled by the arrival of Matisse’s "Red Studio" at the Museum of Modern Art, visiting the painting every day for a month, and its color, especially red, became an inspiration for his later abstract paintings.

Mr. Logan uses this infatuation as an opportunity to stage an incinerating coup de theatre, or what he describes as "a wordless dance" that becomes the triumphant centerpiece of the play.

While priming a canvas with red paint, with classical music blasting from the phonograph, both Rothko and Ken plunge their brushes into the paint pails and, moving around one another with abandon, they start splashing paint on the canvas and themselves until everything is drenched in red. In a strange way, they become bonded by the experience.

After this, Ken becomes more open with Rothko, and some lively debates ensue about color and the new generation of "Pop" artists who are appearing on the scene – Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist – whom Rothko abhors and considers "charlatans."

On one occasion, when he is opening up to Ken, Rothko remarks, "There is only one thing I fear in life and that is that one day the black will swallow the red." Toward the end of the play, we see the color red slowly disappear from the paintings he shows us. The "red" went out of his life permanently on Feb. 25, 1970, when, plagued by health problems and the break-up of his second marriage, he took his life.

Rothko’s art, of course, is still alive on museum and gallery walls around the world.

After completing the paintings for The Four Seasons restaurant, he had lunch there, and was so appalled by its pretentious dining atmosphere and its clientele that he withdrew his commission and returned the cash advance.

The series, "Seagram Murals," found a home in three different locations, London’s Tate Modern, Japan’s Kawamura Memorial Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.