Alfred Molina’s volcanic incarnation of painter Mark Rothko is reason enough to rush to the Taper for John Logan’s “Red,” to say nothing of the involving text and visual audacity of helmer Michael Grandage’s impeccably imported Donmar Warehouse production.
Logan’s screen profiles of Howard Hughes (“The Aviator”), Orson Welles (“RKO-281”) and Georges Melies (“Hugo”) display his intense interest in the psychology of creation. (Toss in “Sweeney Todd,” too; quite the evil genius, that Fleet Street barber.) For “Red” a forgotten historical footnote gives Logan an unparalleled chance to examine what makes an artist tick: the legendary abstract expressionist’s 1958 commission to create a mural series for the ultramodern Seagram Building’s Four Seasons eatery.
Sure, it’s just a restaurant. But “I will make it a temple!” Rothko vows with the egotism only an aging master worried about legacy and impending death can summon up. The man is both exhilarated and cowed by this prospective magnum opus, as overjoyed to dive deeper into his characteristic geometric red blotches as he is physically terrified to be swallowed up by the black surrounding them.
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To hold back his demons, he talks. Rants, really, about art and his contemporaries; collectors’ philistinism; and more or less the entire range of life’s disappointments and triumphs. It all poses a pretty cerebral task for any actor, complicated by Rothko’s having been a “looker” who could stare for hours at a blank canvas without lifting a brush.
Anyone doubting whether Rothko’s struggles could be made theatrically immediate hasn’t reckoned on Molina’s sublime technique. This is one thesp who can register six or more thoughts at a time racing across his mug even as he stares out and puffs on a cigarette. Then he goes into motion — prowling, darting, stopping and starting again, his physicalization clearly reflecting every step of a brilliant yet tortured mind.
Every lion in winter needs to beware the growling cub, and Jonathan Groff gives a thoughtful rendering of Ken, the sorcerer’s reluctant apprentice who ends up serving as his savage conscience.
The only pickup member of the “Red” team since its voyage from London through Gotham, Groff exudes a stiff, actorish self-consciousness in the early scenes. Before long, though, he sketches a strong arc of an ambitious wannabe (clearly suggesting the young Rothko) developing skepticism toward, and finally compassion for, the father figure he’s destined, in the way of all crown princes, to supplant.
Both actors’ paths are greased by Grandage’s typically canny direction, in which tiny gestures or position shifts can take your breath away with their emotional or thematic resonance. The celebrated “ballet” sequence, in which the men prime a canvas’ blood-red basecoat with a panache one can only describe as sexual, is but one instance, out of dozens, of dramatic harmony among scribe, helmer, designers and thesps.
Grandage’s Tony-sweeping design team literally dramatizes the age-old aesthetic conversation — reason vs. chaos; Apollo vs. Dionysus — which obsesses Rothko and Ken. Christopher Oram’s towering studio set, with its strictly cubist corners, conveys classical order even as faded cascades of splashed red remind us of the reckless energy this room has housed. Similarly, Adam Cook’s sound plot alternates Vivaldi and Beethoven elegance with ominous atonal strains suitable to the darkest Hitchcock thriller.
Most striking of all is Neil Austin’s amalgam of realistic and expressionistic lighting, in which a normal floodlamp can suddenly pinpoint a character’s terror. Austin keeps transforming plainly objective illumination sources into subjective creative statements, inspiring both insight and discomfort in the spectator — just as Rothko’s art does.
The world brought alive under Austin’s instruments is completely recognizable. So is the excruciating pain at its heart.