In the last official month of the current Broadway season, there are about a gazillion shows waiting to open before the Tony eligibility cutoff date, shows that include several new plays, a rock musical, a coupla revivals and what may possibly turn out to be the best play of this or any recent season. That play is John Logan’s extraordinary two-hander about the volatile artist Mark Rothko. That play is “Red”.
As the audience files into the Golden Theatre, there is no curtain separating them from the stage. There is Rothko’s studio, and one of the huge murals architect Philip Johnson commissioned Rothko to paint for the walls of his about-to-open Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram’s building, is positioned center stage, taking full command of your attention. You eventually realize there is someone sitting downstage in a forest green slatted deck chair, staring at the painting. The play begins, with no cell-phone announcement, no cutesy warning about this being the 50’s before cell phones were invented, and would you please make sure your phones are off or silenced…Uh uh, none of that mess-because once you’ve seen the craggy visage of Alfred Molina as Rothko, you realize that to risk an errant ringing of an errant phone is to risk being torn to shreds by a look. Or a fellow audience member. You just get the impression you’re about to see some kickass theater, and guess what, you’re right. You are about to see 90 minutes of some highly flammable, highly quotable, highly intelligent yet never condescending talk, that will NOT bore you, but instead, will send you out into the night high as a kite and wanting more. This is theater pure and simple. Theater of the mind, the body and the soul-theater that fuels your imagination and your sense of wonder at the capability of what great stagecraft can do.
And yet, this is such a simple story that eventually concerns all of humanity and man’s capacity for knowledge and truth. Rothko is an artist who has done something he never thought he’d do-he’s sold out. He’s accepted $35,000 from Philip Johnson to create murals for the Four Seasons. And yet, he’s still not content, nor is he sure he’s done the right thing. Enter Ken, a young artist he’s hired to assist him in finishing the murals. To Rothko, Ken is a babe in the woods, worse than that, he’s a neophyte, an innocent, and ultimately, an employee. What follows are some beautifully written, searingly played scenes pitting the two men against each other, sometimes savagely, that explode in that theatre like blinding fireworks in a Fourth of July night sky. They debate the nature of art, the meaning of all forms of art, and the connections between life and art itself. And through it all, there is the great significance of the colors Rothko uses in his art, particularly, as you might expect, the color red. And not just red-of crimson,vermillion,scarlet,burgundy,cardinal,carmine, maroon…all natures and configurations of red, and the thing that red signifies most-blood. It is no accident that the paint Rothko uses throughout the play often runs in rivulets, looking more like a crime scene than an artist’s studio. There is no other play I can think of has ever transfixed an audience like this one does in a scene that consists of two men feverishly coating a canvas with red paint, fueled by the music of Mozart, only to end up covered with beads of red that reminds you more of a sequence in the “Sopranos”, and which, by the way, caused the audience to erupt in spontaneous applause.
The two actors are breathtaking. Molina is ferocious; often erupting in spittle fueled rants that threaten to split open the stage with their violent turns. It’s an inspired performance that is more than matched by Eddie Redmayne’s Ken, who, when he finally lashes out, and goes head to head with his adversary, creates the kind of excitement you get to see oh-so-rarely in the theatre. Redmayne reminds me of another young actor who pulled off the same kind of thing 33 years ago in the original Broadway production of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo”-the gifted John Savage, who went toe to toe to toe with both Robert Duvall and the late ken McMillan. Like Savage did way back then,, Redmayne achieves an articulate inarticulateness that is mesmerising, achieving grandeur with his nobility. He will be a force to be reckoned with in the years to come. And this is a play that should be around a long while as well, but not necessarily with this original cast, so now is the time. There is so little around worthy of attention, don’t let this one get away.
At one point, early in the proceedings, in one of his many articulate rants, Rothko bellows, “Where is discernment?”