“Red” may be all talk and no action — but what talk! Scribe John Logan sends American abstract impressionist painter Mark Rothko into battle with his demons in this electrifying play of ideas, and the artist’s howls are pure music. Alfred Molina is majestic as Rothko, defying the future he reads in the face of Eddie Redmayne, who holds his own as Rothko’s young assistant. Although Michael Grandage’s muscular production was trucked in from the Donmar Warehouse, where it preemed last year and was nommed for three Olivier Awards, the show feels as if it’s come home to Broadway.
Logan (Oscar-nommed for his scripts for “Gladiator” and “The Aviator”) takes us inside Rothko’s studio in 1958, at a critical point in his career. Lionized among a peer group of painters that includes Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Rothko has just been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant being installed in the spectacular new Seagram Building going up on Park Avenue.
At this point, Rothko is in a state of mind that qualifies as “happy” for someone notorious for his black depressions, seething rages and bouts with the bottle. Happy enough, anyway, to hire a young assistant named Ken (Redmayne) to help him stretch his canvases and mix his paints, go out for Chinese food and listen to his rants against rival painters, greedy gallery owners and crafty museum curators — not to mention the “goddamn-son-of-a-bitch-art-critics.”
Molina, an actor in constant demand on both sides of the pond, plays Rothko at full titanic force. Establishing a big, authoritative presence (surprisingly enhanced by the bald pate), he turns in a robust portrait of the artist as a man of fierce intelligence and ferocious drive, undone only by the forces of time.
Set designer Christopher Oram (“Frost/Nixon”) gives Rothko a space big enough to contain both his rampaging ego and his monumental aesthetic vision. Bare to the bricks and dark as a tomb (“Nature doesn’t work for me,” Rothko says about his aversion to painting under natural light), the studio is more like a warehouse, housing stacks of the gigantic color-saturated canvases that define his distinctive style.
Big as it is, the studio can’t contain the artist’s ambition to create his own monument. In a bout of grandiosity, he declares the capitalist shrine of the Four Seasons a proper “chapel” for the contemplation of his politically challenging work. When reminded by Ken that the murals will hang in a busy restaurant, he bullishly insists: “I will make it a temple.”
For much of the first half of this two-hander, Ken has little to contribute beyond playing the quietly resentful sounding board for the great man’s dictates on art, life and his own genius.
Everything that comes out of Rothko’s mouth — from his wonderful tip on how to approach his art (“let it pulsate”) to his stark description of Jackson Pollock’s death (“a lazy suicide”) — is worth straining to hear. But his relentless browbeating of Ken into submissive silence reduces his end of the dialogue to brilliant aphorisms that brook no response.
Happily, Redmayne (winner of a supporting actor Olivier and of both the Evening Standard and Critics’ Circle awards for outstanding newcomer) is an admirably cool and subtle performer. Leaving the visionary bombast to Rothko, he conveys Ken’s unspoken rebuttals in the stubborn thrust of his chin and the glare in his eye.
Over the two-year course of what is essentially a static drama, the most dynamic indicators of change are the paintings. Although Rothko maintains his pose of the roaring bull, the canvases tell a different story, as great, pulsating swaths of life-affirming red are gradually swallowed up by ominous patches of deadly black.
The turning point of the play, staged with operatic grandeur by Grandage, is so intense that anyone who leaves the theater should be shot.
Set (by sound designer Adam Cork) to a thunderous suite of classical music and lighted (by Neil Austin) in Stygian gloom, the scene finds the artist and his assistant preparing a fresh canvas. After stretching the canvas and mixing the paints, both men plunge thick brushes into their paint cans and in expansive synchronized strokes proceed to saturate the canvas — and cover themselves — with red paint.
Bloodied, as it were, Ken finds his voice, becoming less of a Socratic sap and more of a foil for Rothko. But even as the play expands into more interesting territory, allowing for genuinely combative dialogues about theories of color and the new pop-art movement and the role of the artist in a commercial world, Logan keeps turning the screws on Rothko.
Whatever we make of the grand fiasco of the Four Seasons commission, or think about the young generation of artists clamoring to be seen and heard, there’s no doubt that Rothko is one old lion that will keep roaring until he draws his last breath.