Considering the rapturous critical response and the impressive number of awards (including the Tony for Best Play of 2011) that greeted John Logan’s play about abstract impressionist Marc Rothko, I wonder about my lack of enthusiasm for it (after seeing it on Broadway and now in a fine production under the direction of Anders Cato at George Street Playhouse). Perhaps it can be attributed in part by the failure of the (however impressive) crimson, maroon, and black Rothko representation from his dark period that is prominently displayed in designer Lee Savage’s spacious art studio setting that triggers no more than a perfunctory curiosity in me regarding the painting of it. Or is it simply the fact that Rothko, as dramatized (though wonderfully acted by Bob Ari), is simply too consistently disagreeable a character throughout to keep me interested?
As one of a series of Seagrams Murals that Rothko was commissioned to paint and hang on the walls of the Four Seasons Restaurant within the Seagram’s new building in 1959, it does, nevertheless, offer those who have not had the experience of coming face-to-face with a Rothko in real life, some indication of what art critic Jonathan Jones saw in the murals as “furious meditations on the American empire.”
There is certainly plenty of fury unleashed by Rothko in his words and in his unpredictable mood swings that reveal the painter at the most disengaging but never disingenuous period in his life. Not that it matters, but if you look at photos of the actual Rothko, you can see how close Ari physically fits the bill.
When Rothko hires Ken (Randy Harrison), a young and vulnerable but hardly naive artist/assistant, he challenges him, with no apology for his condescension, to tell him what he sees when he gazes at his murals. There are some compelling moments in the play, mainly the personal digressions made by both Rothko and Ken that suggest they have and have had a life beyond the confines of the studio. Harrison, who may be most familiar to audiences from his five seasons on Showtime’s “Queer as Folk,” is excellent, and lashes out impressively against his formidable adversary when he is pushed too far.
As it is almost but not quite amusingly (although it is not a comedy) presented in “Red,” we see a reflection of a mostly embittered and discontent and (certainly for Ken) infuriating artist. Ari obliges us with a bellicose-to-a-fault performance through which we see Rothko the artist not only battling with his inner demons but also coping with his general apathy towards the art world, especially the new wave of pop-artists such as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg who are not running from fame and success. It is interesting how Rothko has no real qualms rationalizing his commission for the Four Seasons as a safe haven for his murals, as well as for showing his contempt for those who eat there with the hope that they will “ruin the appetite of everyone.”
As defined by Logan, Rothko is as arrogant in his low regard for other contemporary artists as he is for Ken, with whom he has not the slightest intention to nurture a friendship despite their working closely together over a period of two years. In that time the irate, rude, indefensibly irrational, and most of all blatantly rude Rothko unwittingly becomes exactly the kind of role model that Ken needs in order for him to face the world. This is not to say that Ken doesn’t show a little backbone and even some rage when pushed into a corner during a climactic moment.
Probably the most poignant scene is the one in which Ken, who has been waiting for the right moment to show Rothko his own painting, becomes painfully aware that there will never be the right moment to show it to him and quietly leaves the studio carrying with him the still-wrapped painting. That Rothko would remain totally disinterested in Ken as a human being is puzzling even after he provokes Ken to reveal a personal family tragedy.
There is a briskly performed scene in which we see how Rothko and Ken work as a team, priming a huge canvas with break-neck speed, red paint dripping off their brushes as they trade places and spaces in a close-proximity race to the finish — a finish that brought spontaneous applause from the audience (as it did on Broadway) on opening night.
The dialogue between Rothko and Ken is always lively, intelligently crisp, and often funny, most often reflecting Rothko’s need to remain the superior to the younger artist and in the realization that, “The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him.” When Ken finally gets up the nerve to ask Rothko why he never asked to see his paintings, Rothko answers, “Why should I. You’re an employee. This is about me. Everything here is about me.”
While it isn’t likely that anyone sitting in a theater seat should expect to feel the vibrancy, the aliveness, and the deeply personalized communion one experiences when looking at a Rothko painting in person, it would have been nice for me to feel that I wasn’t, after all is said and done, on the receiving end of a lot of pretentious bellowing about how I and perhaps everyone in the audience wasn’t worthy enough to look at a Rothko. My consolation is that Rothko were he alive would probably say, “I do not approve of this play.” That leads me to think, it may be better than I think it is.
“Red,” through Sunday, February 26, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $33.50 to $63.50. 732-246-7717 or gsponline.org