Red: Theater Review
Alfred Molina reprises his role as painter Mark Rothko in the L.A. debut of the 2010 Tony Award winner for best play.
Mark Rothko accepted a lucrative commission to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue in 1958, and this fictional account of his relationship with an assistant, Ken, during the creation of the pieces conveys a convincing accuracy, to use one of artist’s most cherished words, even if it makes little pretense to authenticity. Their palaver about the mechanics of painting and the pain of the creative act is consistently intelligent and pointed, although dramatically it plays more often as heroic rhetoric than emotional revelation. Rothko expostulates on the personal sacrifice that art demands, and on the necessity for total engagement and deep commitment to both one’s thought and action. Meanwhile, Ken, an aspiring painter himself, struggles to placate the cranky demands of his employer while learning not merely how to be an artist but also a conscious individual with ideas and inspirations of his own.
Winner of the 2010 Tony for best play, Red alternates between apotheosizing the legendary painter primarily through his own self-dramatizations and criticizing his character from Ken’s own somewhat undergraduate perspective. Playwright John Logan writes their exchanges with a sympathetic ear for each of their viewpoints, as they argue passionately, each plainly rooted overmuch in his own perspective. Alfred Molina may not much look like Rothko, but he has mastered his facial expressions with precision, and the actor’s own gravitas commands the hall as surely as Rothko does the debate. Rothko may be a gruff curmudgeon, yet he is also fundamentally generous in sharing his hard-earned wisdom. The relish of a fine actor in a meaty role powers the play, and Molina evidences great wit without ever getting caught being clever: he suffers with aplomb. Jonathan Goff has the more difficult role, needing to react without becoming callow and saddled with a fraught back-story that is somewhat too convenient for dramatic purposes, but he lends a flesh and blood neediness to a character who is otherwise essentially a device to create an opposing arc to the center of attention.
While the litany of pronouncements on the nature of art and the artist remain doggedly within familiar ground, Logan does have a flair for the rhythm of dueling ideas that keeps the action lively for all its declamations. One might quarrel that it is a stretch to show Rothko demoralized by Warhol’s soup cans years before they were actually painted, and that the conflict of values posed by Rothko’s acceptance of the Seagram commission is schematic and over-generalized, but all the sentiments expressed seem honest representations of his views, and the poignancy of one of the slayers of cubism and surrealism being himself rendered “classically obsolete” by the new wave of “cooler” artists evokes genuine empathy.
Venue: Mark Taper Forum (through September 9)
Cast: Alfred Molina, Jonathan Goff
Playwright: John Logan
Director: Michael Grandage
Scenic and Costume Design: Christopher Oram
Lighting Design: Neil Austin
Composer and Sound Design: Adam Cork.