Friday, April 9, 2010
I was surprised when I heard that the Broadway play Red was about Mark Rothko being commissioned to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. I hadn’t known about that and couldn’t connect the intellectual abstract-expressionist painter with an expensive, status-symbol dining spot.
As John Logan's fascinating two-character biographical play illustrates, my instincts were right. This fast-paced, 90-minute drama, directed by Michael Grandage and powerfully performed by Alfred Molina as Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant, Ken, is an examination of art and its worth, and challenges the notion that commercial aspects are always an enemy of creativity.
The year was 1958 and the Seagram Building was a new architectural gem of modernity on Park Avenue. Rothko was paid $35,000 to paint a series of murals for its chic restaurant, Four Seasons. Red imagines that time. Set in the artist’s Manhattan studio as he paints the dark red and black murals that dominate the stage, Rothko tells Ken he will create a chapel-like atmosphere where people sit surrounded by his paintings, leading them to contemplation and reflection.
“But it’s a restaurant,” Ken says.
“No. I will make it a temple,” Rothko responds.
Red is a play of ideas, yet it doesn’t feel talky, thanks to the writing and performing. Molina captures Rothko’s ego and his genius, spewing forth his vast knowledge -- and opinions -- of philosophy, literature and art. Redmayne is the initially idealist assistant, who is himself an aspiring painter. But over two years as the receiver of Rothko’s diatribes and questioning, he becomes increasingly bolder in taking on the master with his own now well-formed thoughts on the future of art.
Red is the latest import from London’s Donmar Warehouse, which recently brought us Frost/Nixon, Mary Stuart and Hamlet. Molina and Redmayne are reprising their Donmar roles, for which Redmayne won an Olivier Award.
Screenwriter-playwright Logan told Playbill.com's Stage to Screens column he was inspired to write the play after seeing the Rothko Seagram murals in London’s Tate Modern. The artist had donated them to the museum a year before committing suicide in 1970.
"When I thought about the way the colors in the paintings vibrate back and forth, I thought it would be a great two-hander because it sorta represents and mirrors his work,” he said. “Once I came up with the idea of Rothko and his assistant, everything fell into place."
Christopher Oram designed the simple set, Neil Austin the atmospheric lighting. Adam Cork was composer and sound designer; the stirring classical music, supposedly being played on Rothko’s record player, is almost another character in the play.
Tickets for Red, which is playing a limited 15-week engagement at the Golden Theatre, are available through Telecharge.com, by phone at (212) 239-6200, online at Telecharge or at the box office, 252 W. 45th St. Visit RedOnBroadway.com for more details.