nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 7, 2010
Red, the new play by John Logan at Broadway's John Golden Theatre, is a stimulating, thought-provoking exploration of art. It asks what art is for, and it plumbs deeply into the process of its creation: a director friend of mine remarked that she felt Red looked more nakedly and truthfully at the pain that goes into the making of art than anything she'd ever seen. I think that people who care about art, in any manifestation, and certainly people who make it, will find much resonance in this fine drama.
The reason that the play works so well is because it frames all of this lofty intellectual debate within a well-told human story. The larger-than-life presence at the center of Red is Mark Rothko, the Russian-American painter. When we meet him at the beginning of the play, he has just begun work on a commission to create a series of murals for the brand-new Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram's Building (the year is 1958). Rothko hires an assistant, Ken, to help him prepare canvases, mix paint, etc. Ken is the protagonist of the play.
Red unfolds over several months. The creation of the works for the restaurant serves as catalyst for a deepening relationship between mentor and student, and more importantly for an ongoing conversation between the two about the nature of art. The character of Rothko is mostly a mouthpiece for provocative and challenging ideas and a sounding board, as the character of Ken matures and grows into an artist who, one hopes, will find his own voice and his own style. (I presume that Ken is an entirely original creation of Logan's, not based on any particular employee of Rothko's.)
We come to care for both men, but Red's focus is always on the ideas it examines. They often rush at us, defying us to take them all in (which is why the forthcoming published edition of the play is most welcome, though it's on the pricey side). I enjoyed Rothko's early pronouncements about Ken's inadequate education—he says, quite correctly in my view, that one cannot be an artist unless one knows philosophy, science, poetry, drama, and so on. Another high point occurs when Rothko and Ken illustrate the infinite meanings of the word "red" in a thrilling duet of images, often startling in their variety and vividness.
Director Michael Grandage serves Logan's vision beautifully with this production, constantly giving us interesting things to look at and observe: we watch Ken staple a canvas to a wooden frame, stretch another canvas on wooden sawhorses, and mix colors; and in a grand pas-de-deux we see the artist and his helper prep a canvas by slathering it in blood-red paint. Christopher Oram's set and costumes feel entirely organic and yet are suitably theatrical; I loved the way that some of Ken's costume changes and props are subtly hidden amongst the clutter onstage in Rothko's rented studio. Best of all is the lighting by Neil Austin, which becomes almost a character in the play all by itself as it illustrates important concepts being discussed.
Alfred Molina is the towering figure that Rothko needs to be, booming and blustering and barking out commands in a wholly unsentimental portrayal of a supreme egoist. (Molina's uncanny American accent is so natural that I didn't notice it until he spoke, in a curtain speech, in his own, entirely different British-accented voice.)
Opposite Molina, newcomer Eddie Redmayne is spectacularly good: Ken is the play's anchor, and Redmayne holds his own and holds our interest and sympathy unwaveringly.
I enjoyed spending time with Rothko and his work in Red, and even though the play doesn't illuminate the artist's oeuvre specifically, it does reveal much about any artist's life and purpose. This play stands out among the current offerings on Broadway for its intelligence, intellectual rigor, and—especially—for knowing that audiences are smart and curious and don't need to be served warmed-over or dumbed-down fare. If that excites you, then you will do well to make this new play the one you see this season on the Great White Way.