By John Logan
Directed by Michael Grandage
With Alfred Molina and Jonathan Groff
Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles
Through Sept. 9, 2012
Are you a big fan of Mark Rothko? No? Honestly, neither am I. But, put the paintings aside, would you want to spend the evening with him? If you know anything about his angry, self-absorbed, controlling, depressive, bombastic personality, you probably would not want to, regardless of whether you like his work. But do you want to spend the evening watching Alfred Molina channel this tortured, torturing soul? That is a very different question. Good theater is rarely centered around charming characters who have their lives together and are graced by loving relationships. The question, then, is can superb acting by a master who brings life to a troubled and troubling character be enough to sustain a drama?
John Logan has built his Tony-winning drama, “Red” around a slight stretch of a true story. When architect Phillip Johnson designed the Seagram’s Building in Manhattan, he commissioned Rothko to paint the mural for the lobby. It was to be made up of his characteristic “multiform” giant canvasses. When Rothko learned that they would be installed, instead, in the tony Four Seasons restaurant, he immediately withdrew his work and forfeited the $35,000, a princely sum in 1958. Logan’s poetic license is that he changed the story from the factual to a version where the commission begins as decoration for the restaurant. In this fictionalized telling, Rothko hires a young painter, Ken (Jonathan Groff) as an assistant to help in the studio — “remember you are not a painter” he characteristically roars. Rothko is the emperor of the studio, make no mistake about that. Ken is expected to hang on every word.
Over the next two tortured years, we follow as Rothko storms to his audience of one. The painter ultimately decides he cannot let the precious products of his artistic agony go to the tawdry cause of providing the background for the super wealthy to see and be seen as they munch on rare and expensive morsels. It is through the developing relationship between the two men that Logan gives Rothko the platform to express himself in an unbridled torrent of always angered, often self-contradictory, sometimes meaningless (but poetic) pompous oratory. He once told an art critic, “I don’t express myself in my paintings; I express my not-self.” Rothko was a very quotable and oft quoted guy, so Logan’s dialogue rings true.
At age seven, Ken discovered his parents murdered in bed. Shunted from foster home to foster home it is no stretch to see the young painter is obviously father-deprived. Rothko is no warm, snuggly, bear-hug kind of guy. But Ken attends, almost reverentially, to Rothko’s daily verbal barrage. Rothko forgives himself for the hours he spends thus, saying such things as, “most of painting is thinking.” Likening the meaning of his paintings to be “layering like pentimento.” Rothko’s background is Russian and Talmudic. He single-handedly can beat both sides of a point to death. Ken begins as a callow youth, but despite his cowering beginning, he grows under this peculiar nurturing. It is the story of Ken’s growth, well portrayed by Jonathan Groff, more than any change on Rothko’s part, that provides a basis for calling “Red” a play.
The set is entirely Rothko’s studio loft. No natural light is let in. The artist must control everything. Director Michael Grandage first conceived this production for the Donmar Warehouse in London. Working with scenic designer Christopher Oram they have created a very convincing version of a working studio, deftly rotating into prominence full-sized likenesses of the Rothko Seagram Mural Panels, including a scene where the two men, using large house painting brushes, madly “prime” a huge raw canvass with brilliant red.
“Red” is superbly staged. Alfred Molina is sensational, Groff a young actor to watch. The dialogue is powerful. If you know anything about Mark Rothko, there is no hesitation in suspending disbelief. Is “Red” a great play? I think not; but it is a powerful evening in the theater, one that is not easily forgotten.