"What does it need?" ponders abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Scott Wentworth) in Red as he stares deeply into the unseen canvas that hangs in his cavernous Bowery studio, over the audience at the Alley Theatre. He peers through us as he contemplates the work in progress. Surrounding him are his latest children, his series of color-wash murals soon to decorate the most famous and expensive restaurant in the United States, the Four Seasons in the about-to-be completed Seagram Building in New York City, designed by international superstar architects Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. His fee is a whopping $35,000, a landmark for modern art commissions.
His young turk assistant Ken (Jay Sullivan), staring just as intensely, simply says, "More red." We laugh at Ken's unabashed innocence, but Rothko viciously turns on him and spits out, "I wasn't talking to you!" Ken has been hired to mix paint, stretch canvas, fetch Chinese takeout, hammer together frames and be quiet. Rothko pontificates, Ken listens. "I am not your teacher," Rothko earlier bullies him. Nor his rabbi, father or shrink, but he becomes shades of all of them during John Logan's multiple-Tony-winning play.
During the intermission-less work, Ken, who represents the new generation staring down the old guard, finds the courage to challenge the cantankerous old lion. They bicker, posture and debate Art and History, sell-out consumerism, Apollo vs. Dionysus, and other weighty issues. Rothko's continuous and contemptuous dismissals of contemporary rivals Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and especially Andy Warhol elicit appreciative audience laughs. Rothko thrusts with "What do you see?" while Ken parries with his unvarnished opinion on a gut level. The egoist in Rothko won't be bested, so their dramatic confrontations take on what little drama there is in the play. In a cumbersome plot device, Ken reveals a deep, dark family trauma that playwright John Logan drops as soon as it's confessed, and the play veers back into Art Theory 101.
The stunning visual production by Takeshi Kata, expressionistically lighted by Paul Whitaker, contains most of the play's dramatic action, although director Jackson Gay is a master at camouflage. The facsimile paintings — those famous Rothko rectangles set onto and into a vibrant base color — breathe onstage with more vigor than all the heavy breathing of the two characters' discourse. They "pulse" with life, as Rothko intends, but the main stage remains colorless. It's the physicality of what it means to be a painter that comes strikingly through.
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We watch Ken staple a corner of a canvas as he stretches it, while Rothko caresses the smooth, finished fabric as if it were the skin of a lover, and we shiver with a response deeper than all their high-flown, arty talk. Rothko mixes a batch of paint, gingerly tossing in a pinch of powdered tint, and we stare fascinated as he spoons the heated mixture like a master chef checking the roux. Even when the two raise and lower the massive frames on a pulley system, we watch transfixed. There's a lot of manual labor involved in painting, not just profound ideas. In a thrilling sequence, Rothko and Ken prep a canvas to a soaring Baroque aria. They splash on the undercoat, working at fever pitch, and end up spent and splattered with red. Rothko gets a deserved laugh when, in afterglow and collapsed in his chair, he lights up a cigarette.
With his shaved head and plush stage presence, sleeves rolled up, Wentworth prowls through the play growling, purring, hectoring, staring into his children for approval. He's a sacred monster, to be sure, reveling in his seriousness but always checking over his shoulder those younger talents nipping at his heels, and Wentworth shows us the hurt and depression growing and overtaking him. Rothko worked almost hermetically sealed inside his own temple to art, eschewing natural light, as "nature doesn't work for me," and Wentworth probes and penetrates into this artist's combative heart of darkness. He makes an overheated line like "there's tragedy in every brushstroke" convincing.
Jay Sullivan, so memorable at the Alley last season as a steampunk Peter Pan, utterly convinces as the nettle that pricks Rothko's pretensions. Starting off stunned at Rothko's bullish behavior, he finds through Rothko's trial by fire that he can stand and deliver. His little aria about his past is phrased with just the right tinge of lingering terror and unfathomable grief. He's damaged goods, too. Under director Gay's steady hand, Wentworth and Sullivan make a perfect team, colliding and playing off each other with sparky precision.
Full of heavy, dramatic brushstrokes yet wan drama, Red nevertheless soars in the very act of creation. The pseudo canvases throb with life, much more than the pseudo-life and endless Socratic dialogue. The paintings vibrate with intensity and color, the play stalls and pales.
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