By JOHN DeMERS
As written by John Logan and directed by Jackson Gay, Red is an intense, painful and masterfully entertaining look at what in this world passes for artistic genius. By spending 90-plus minutes in the New York studio with abstract expressionist Mark Rothko as he struggles to complete the first great commission of his career, we understand a little better the costs associated (often so dramatically, in life after life) with that gift.
Red is a two-person drama that’s been a huge hit on Broadway (at the beginning, starring film veteran Alfred Molina) and the winner of most playwriting awards that exist. It is, in every sense of the term, “talky” – since relatively little happens during the show, and most of that is mixing paint, changing out pictures, stretching canvas over wooden frames, priming surfaces, the day-to-day drudgery that makes art possible. But oh what monumental talk it is.
Capsuling the two years between the first day on the job of a young assistant (who of course wants to be an artist himself) and the day he gets “fired,” Logan’s play nails this single relationship with a laser: the bursts of humor intended and otherwise, the slow warming-up to familiarity with each other’s life stories, the evolution of protege into a “human being” (one of Rothko’s favorite phrases) with his own unique vision. For all but the final scene, the artist does the bulk of this talking, to the point the script could almost be the sort of monologue actors choose for auditions. Boastful, angry, filled with conceits, delusions and occasional self-mockery (“Yes, all artists should starve. Except me.”), profoundly envious (“Pollock, Pollock, Pollock!”), Logan’s version of Rothko rings absolutely true, whether we know a thing about the artist or his work, or not.
Accomplished New York actor Scott Wentworth, who actually played Romeo at the Alley way back in 1981, makes the lead role his own, pouring in some of the tragedy he knows from doing so much Shakespeare. As this Rothko is acutely aware (some would say: too aware) of his place on the continuum of great artists, writing and acting styles rooted in the classics are right for the moment. From the instant we notice the aging Rothko sitting silently before his canvases with a drink and a cigarette as we file into the theater, we know we’re encountering an actor living in his character’s skin. For long periods of time watching Red, in fact, we forget that Wentworth isn’t Mark Rothko. Only the never-quite-forgotten fact that Rothko killed himself in 1970 keeps us rooted in the real.
Young actor Jay Sullivan is perfect as assistant Ken, he of the parents who were murdered on a snowy-white day when he was 7, he who gets things off on the totally wrong foot by answering Rothko’s inquiry about his favorite artist… “Jackson Pollock,” he who gets to grow under the gaze of Rothko as father figure – even as Rothko insists that’s precisely what he’s not. “I’m your employer,” the great man rants more than once. Every Shakespearean in the house knows what “protesting too much” sounds like.
Gay’s direction is swift and spare, accurately reflected by Takeshi Kata’s set design showing a single high-ceilinged room in which large-format art can be done, studied, redone, reconsidered, fussed over – and never quite sent forth into a world of audiences Rothko describes with clinical, often hilarious depredation. If you’re the least bit interested in 20th century art, or any kind of art, or any kind of artist, there’s much to learn from and enjoy by watching the Alley’s production of Red.
Photos by Jann Whaley: Scott Wentworth and Jay Sullivan