"What does it need?" ponders abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (Scott Wentworth) as he stares deeply into the unseen canvas that hangs over the audience in his cavernous Bowery studio. 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, designed by international superstar architects Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. His commission is a whopping $35,000, a landmark in art patronage.
His young-turk assistant Ken (Jay Sullivan) 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, go out for Chinese, hammer together frames and be quiet. Rothko pontificates, Ken must listen. "I am not your teacher," Rothko has warned him, nor his rabbi, father or mentor. But that's what he becomes during John Logan's multiple Tony-winning play, now running at the Alley Theatre.
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, consumerism, theory, Apollo vs. Dionysus, contemporary painters who have no value, and other weighty matters. Rothko continuously thrusts with, "What do you see?" while Ken parries with 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 secret that Logan drops as soon as it's said, and the play veers back into Art Theory 101.
The stunning visual production by Takeshi Kata contains 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.
We watch Ken staple a corner of a canvas as he stretches it, while Rothko runs his hand caressingly over the smooth, finished fabric as if along the skin of a lover, and we shiver with a response deeper than all their high-flown talk. Rothko makes 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 piece of classical music. They splash on the red undercoat, working as if in a fever or dream state, and end up spent and splattered with red. Rothko gets a deserved laugh when, in afterglow, he lights up a cigarette.
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Wentworth, with his shaved head and plush stage presence, sleeves rolled up, prowls through the play growling, purring, hectoring. He's a sacred monster, to be sure, reveling in his seriousness and checking over his shoulder those younger talents nipping at his heels, and we see his hurt and depression growing. He penetrates into this artist's heart of darkness. 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. Wentworth and Sullivan make a perfect team, colliding and playing off each other with delicate precision.
Full of more gas than the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, Red nevertheless comes down to earth in the very act of painting. I wish there were more of it. The pseudo-canvases throb with life, much more than the pseudo-life we see onstage. They vibrate, the play stalls.
The passionate, red-hued life and work of Mark Rothko plays through March 25 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. Purchase tickets online at alleytheatre.org or call 713-220-5700. $39-$67.