An imaginative symbiosis between Michael Grandage's riveting production and John Logan's new play.

Come on, come on,” worries Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko, glaring over the audience’s heads at one of his canvases. “What does it need?” Playing Ken, his assistant, Eddie Redmayne proffers a suggestion: “Red.” Molina doesn’t reply, he explodes: “I wasn’t talking to you!” In the ensuing stunned silence, it hits you that Molina’s now lost concentration on blank space convinced us he was gazing at a painting that, in reality, doesn’t exist. The force of that realization is a measure of the imaginative symbiosis between Michael Grandage’s riveting production and John Logan’s new play.

Ever since “The Agony and the Ecstasy,” cliche-ridden, artist biodramas have been an industry staple. And that’s not the sole reason why another play about the power of art ought not to work. Logan doesn’t make life easy for himself by writing just two characters and a single setting, Rothko’s notoriously dimly lit Bowery studio, atmospherically re-created by designer Christopher Oram.

Logan, whose most recent work has been onscreen (“Sweeney Todd,” “The Aviator”), understands the importance of genre, so he smartly uses the story arc of a mystery. Why, in 1958, did America’s leading abstract expressionist accept the world’s largest commission for a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building? And then why, after two years’ work, did he return the money and renege on the deal?

Like all historical plays, this is as much a critique of the time in which it’s written as the period it dramatizes. The ramifications of the “business” of art — its financial worth vs. its artistic value — is central not only to the intellectually superior Rothko but to all contemporary discussions of culture.

Yet, for all the exultant punch of Rothko’s excoriating attacks on Ken’s lazy thinking, the opening scene suggests “Red” will fit the tired new-assistant-learns-at-feet-of-old-master mold. But Logan overturns expectations.

“You think human beings can be divided up neatly into character types?” thunders Rothko. To the play’s enormous benefit, Logan clearly doesn’t. Across five scenes spanning two years, Rothko’s inherent contradictions grow more apparent; his brilliant but bullish analysis is stealthily revealed to be blinkered by self-delusion.

Yet this is no hidden hatchet job. Ken’s growing self-assertiveness is similarly double-edged. As a result, it’s impossible to take sides. Audiences will find themselves engrossed in an ever-changing relationship to the two men, whose professional relationship is the real subject.

Rothko roars that he is neither Ken’s rabbi nor his father, but the play is acutely concerned with the relationship between generations, between apprentice and mentor. Logan’s bracingly unsentimental handling of this is given full weight not so much by speeches — the subject is barely mentioned — but by thrillingly held silences between Molina and Redmayne. The actors’ individual strengths are remarkable, but it’s the quality of their listening to each other that makes them mesmerizing.

Faced with a play with few events — plotwise, virtually nothing happens — Grandage sustains tension to a remarkable degree. Auds are held rapt even in time slips between scenes. Rothko worked to Mozart, and in the scene changes, composer Adam Cork elides classical quartets into emotive, Steve Reich-like string tropes that pulse like colors on a Rothko canvas.

Vividly lit by Neil Austin, almost exclusively using footlights and practical working lights, Oram’s set is a real working studio. The actors seem truly plausible as we watch them hang beautiful re-creations of several of the Seagram murals and — a true rarity in art plays — painstakingly create the work. The superbly choreographed scene where they turn up the music and hurl themselves and maroon paint at a vast empty canvas speaks volumes about their defining relationship.

Audiences expecting neat life lessons about artists or a simple-minded attack upon/salute to abstract art will be disappointed. “Red” is far more ambitious, which makes its success all the more satisfying. That its central character is such a key figure in American culture can only hasten the play’s arrival in the U.S.

Red

Donmar Warehouse, London; 250 seats; £29 $47 top

Production

A Donmar Warehouse presentation of a play in one act by John Logan. Directed by Michael Grandage.

Creative

Sets and costumes, Christopher Oram; lighting, Neil Austin; original music and sound, Adam Cork; production stage manager, Greg Shimmin. Opened, reviewed Dec. 8, 2009. Running time: 1 HOUR, 35 MIN.

Cast

Mark Rothko - Alfred Molina Ken - Eddie Redmayne

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