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Abstract impressionist painter Mark Rothko is an asshole. Or at least, playwright John Logan thinks so. In his Tony-award winning play Red, currently enjoying a beautiful, if less than perfect, production at the Goodman Theatre, Rothko is a wide-bellied, self-centered rock of a man who treats his art better than his fellow human beings. He employs the youthful Ken, a fictional character, as a personal slave, calling him overeager, undereducated, and consistently wrong. Yet, for some reason, Rothko keeps him around.
Commissioned to create nine murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York, Rothko sets to work with his assistant. They argue about money, fame, art, history, and philosophy, but when they work, it is in silence. They take to the white canvas with raw speed, criss-crossing one another in a choreographed dance to lay a reddened brown base on the bare canvas. They finish. His assistant falls to his back to catch his breath. Rothko lights up a cigarette. Despite this visual joke, the pair never displays any sexual tension; it is a strict employer-employee bond, even though the assistant longs for Rothko to be more of father.
“To me the play is really not about art or painting at all,” Logan remarked in an interview, “it’s about fathers and sons.” That central relationship is brought to life by two talented men, who, like their characters, are at different ends of their careers. Edward Gero, who has spent 28 seasons with the Shakespeare Theatre Company, takes to the lofty, poetic of language of Rothko with ease. His high, wide pants, splattered with paint, cover the booming presence of a know-it-all painter who gets angry when others don’t. His counterpart, the tiny and attractive Patrick Andrews, is a bit shyer and occasionally seems too aware that his words have been poetically scripted by another. While this fictional relationship is the heart of the play, the true-life story of Rothko and the commission frame the work.
Disgusted by the clientele and prices of the Four Seasons, Rothko eventually revokes his work and returns the commission stipend. In a dramatic exchange between the pair, Rothko wonders why he took it to begin with. Prestige has clouded his judgment. Logan, who penned the screenplays for The Aviator, Gladiator, and first encountered a Rothko while in London filming Sweeney Todd, is no stranger to this tension between art and money. One must recognize art does not exist in a vacuum, but is instead created by individuals with human needs that must function in economic systems. Rothko knows this, and speaks lyrically about his struggle over a brilliantly designed score. Richard Woodbury’s original music, which appears during scene changes, combines with Logan’s language to raise the play to a place of poetry. Set designer Todd Rosenthal’s tall studio, littered with cans of paint and pigment, provides a space grand enough for Rothko to contemplate and create his works – and to contain his ego. The design elements unite to create a space of slightly heightened realism, pulsing like reds in Rothko’s work.
Close up, there are moments in Red which haunt– the fast painting scene, Rothko asking, “How do they make you feel?” as Ken stares looks at the audience imagining a wall of work – but when one stands back and shines a bright white light on the production, it has shortcomings. It can feel like a collection of moments which don’t quite build on one another brought to life by a pair of men who don’t quite have a powerful on-stage chemistry. But like a Rothko painting, Red should not be experienced from far away in bright white light, but close-up in a dimmed theater, allowing for gentle, subtle contemplation.
Red plays at the Goodman Theatre through October 30. More information at goodmantheatre.org.