Red Review: The Mark Rothko Glower and Glow

Eddie Redmayne made his Broadway debut as the fictional assistant to the painter Mark Rothko, portrayed by Alfred Molina, in “Red,” a play by John Logan that I reviewed on April 1, 2010. I resurrect this review on the eve of the latest Broadway play about modern art,

Actor Alfred Molina’s intense portrayal of the passionate, unpleasant and eventually suicidal painter Mark Rothko in “Red,” an absorbing new play from London’s Donmar Warehouse that has now opened at the Golden, is not Molina’s first foray on Broadway into the world of modern art.

He appeared in “Art” by Yasmina Reza (the playwright now better known for “God of Carnage”) playing an indecisive, placating referee for his two friends Alan Alda and Victor Garber who are feuding because Garber bought a painting that is completely white, and Alda thinks he wasted his money. It was a comedy that made fun of modern art, or more precisely mocked middle class attitudes towards modern art.

One door down and 12 years later, “Red” by John Logan seeks out the same Broadway audience for a play that treats modern art seriously and from the inside, with Molina this time as an opinionated, abrasive artist who mixes it up (often literally) with an assistant, Ken, played by Eddie Redmayne.

“What do you see?” Mark Rothko asks Ken on his very first day on the job, the first words of the play.

They are standing in his studio, a converted gymnasium on the Bowery before one of the works for which Rothko is best known — a massive canvas stacked with solid blocks (often called “oblong blurs”) of color. If the question would make any new employee uncomfortable, it is clear that this world-famous painter is nervous too. “Be kind,” he says. “These pictures deserve compassion.” In Rothko’s universe, nothing and nobody else seem to deserve it, which is clear as soon as he tells Ken: “I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher – I am your employer. You understand?”

In the five scenes that take place in the studio over the next two years — to the credit of the play, the playwright, director Michael Grandage and the two extraordinary actors – the rules of sentimental drama are not applied. Rothko does not become cuddly. But he does become better understood, and in effect becomes Ken’s teacher, as well as the audience’s. We are offered a glimpse into the process of painting. We watch while they build the wooden frames, and stretch the canvases on them, and prime a canvas — cover it with a red glaze, an energetic dance with paint brush accompanied by a glorious symphony that leaves them exhausted and the audience exhilarated.

We listen while Rothko expounds on Rembrandt and Caravaggio (who inspire him), Picasso (who he thinks sold out), his friend and rival Jackson Pollock (who he thinks gave up).

Then we experience the shift in the power dynamics when Ken debates him on Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and starts to criticize him.

During the time of the play, roughly 1958 to 1960, Rothko is focusing on his largest commission, one described in the play as “the flashiest mural since the Sistine Chapel,” a job towards which Rothko has violently mixed feelings. He has been hired to paint a spectacular set of murals for the Four Seasons Restaurant, under construction in the Seagrams Building. The building was universally hailed as groundbreaking architecture, but is now largely lost to all but the expert eye among the inferior glass skyscrapers that imitated it.

There might be something of a metaphor in there for Rothko himself. To understand Mark Rothko’s place in art history, one might turn to an unimpeachable source: Sister Wendy. “Those who love Rothko consider him one of the most important painters of the 20th century,” Wendy Beckett writes in Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting; the statement is a crafty hedge if I’ve ever read one. What is not in dispute is that Rothko was one of the two most celebrated members of a group of American artists that for a period after World War II defined modern art for the world. Rothko and Jackson Pollock and several others were grouped together as the New York School of artists, what they painted was given the meaningless or at least misleading title of Abstract Expressionism, their faces were featured on the cover of magazines, their paintings heralded as the second coming by philosopher-acolytes and exhaustively analyzed in a torrent of multi-syllabic words.

It is not essential to know or like much about modern art, or Rothko’s place in it, in order to appreciate “Red” for its forceful acting and its vivid, rich, rhythmic language: After Rothko angrily chastises Ken for suggesting that he add some red to one of his paintings, they engage in a five-minute riff on the meaning and associations of red that is dense and delicious, e.g.
Rothko: Dresden firestorm at night, the sun in Rousseau, the flag in Delacroix, the robe in El Greco
Ken: A rabbit’s nose, an albino’s eyes, a parakeet.
Rothko: Florentine marble. Atomic flash. Nick yourself shaving, blood in the Barbasol.

Much of the dialogue is far more everyday but retains this flavor of poetry. Rothko tends to speak in litanies and rants, and there is no actor better suited to delivering them than Alfred Molina, whose best performances have been of angry, stricken, impassioned men. He speaks here with the no-nonsense working-class accent (maybe a tad overdone) of a Brooklyn truck driver; it reminds me a little of Rod Steiger’s in “On The Waterfront.” The music of the language is often helped by what is in effect the musical score — standard in movies, rare in plays, but presented here as a series of classical music LPs that Rothko likes to put on his record player while he paints. They mostly enhance the moods but sometimes make it more difficult to discern every word.

A sizable portion of those words are used to provide a painless course in art history, some of which surely passes by too quickly for all in the audience but those schooled in the references. At one point, Rothko talks about Caravaggio’s “Conversion of Saul” at the Santa Maria del Popolo church in Rome, explaining how, though the painting is in a dark corner of a dark church, it glowed with an inner luminosity. Here is the painting to which he is referring:

Later he talks of the energy and emotion of Matisse’s painting, “The Red Studio.”

He makes a reference to “Belshazzar’s Feast” by Rembrandt and its phrase (“Rembrandt’s Hebrew was atrocious”), which he translates as “You have been weighed in the balance and have been found wanting.”

Finally, in “Red,” Rothko mentions the staircase by Michelangelo in the Medici Library in Florence. Michelangelo embraced the claustrophobia of the room, making the viewer “feel he is trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up…He achieved just the kind of feeling I was after for the Four Seasons.”

None of these works of art that influenced Rothko’s own work, and his thinking about art, are on display. But what is on display, thanks to set designer Christopher Oram and especially lighting designer Neil Austin, are a couple of reproductions of Rothko’s paintings of the period (with their famous ability to appear to be glowing), and of his utilitarian studio, that help explain in a way that words alone cannot what all the fuss was about.

For those already well-versed in the visual arts, “Red” offers little that is new or especially insightful. There is much biography left out about Rothko, lifelong anarchist, intellectual and organizer. For all the hints that the tension in Rothko’s paintings is mirrored in the tension between Rothko and his assistant, the play’s central relationship is an oft-used dramatic device, the imagined character serving as foil and expositor in order to illuminate the real-life one. In this way, “Red” shares a strategy with this season’s “Looped” about Tallulah Bankhead (although the effectiveness of this formula in the two plays is as different, to borrow from Mark Twain, as lightning is to a lightning bug.) For all its erudite references, it is a play of surfaces. But of course Rothko’s paintings were all about surfaces too. Like a Rothko painting, “Red” depends to a degree on what the viewer brings to it; in the right light, with the right attitude, “Red,” like a Rothko, seems to glow. 

At John Golden Theater
Written by John Logan
Directed by Michael Grandage Set and costume designer: Christopher Oram, lighting designer: Neil Austin, composer and sound designer: Adam Cork Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission Ticket prices: $116.50. Two back rows of the mezzanine: $25. No student or general rush or lottery. Performances through June 27, 2010 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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