"What do you see?"
They are the tantalizing first words of "Red," John Logan's engrossing, often enthralling new play about art, an artist and the act of creation.
Not since "White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities." the final thoughts from the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical "Sunday in the Park With George" has a statement produced such a shiver of anticipation and exhilaration.
And like "Sunday," a musical about French painter Georges Seurat, "Red," which opened Thursday at Broadway's Golden Theatre, focuses on a famous artist, American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. But unlike "Sunday" and its impoverished hero, "Red" depicts a financially successful man, critically lauded in his prime, yet growling about art, his fellow artists and life.
And the two-character play, set in the late 1950s, deals with an especially lucrative moment for Rothko, his painting of a series of murals for a swank restaurant, the Four Seasons, in the architecturally acclaimed Seagram Building on Park Avenue.
The question that opens "Red" is posed by Rothko to a young man, then hired by the artist to help him with the grunt work of creation: stretching canvases, mixing paint, cleaning brushes and applying ground color, which Rothko admonishes "is not painting."
That is the most elemental pleasure of "Red," watching Rothko, played by a beefy, bald Alfred Molina, and Ken, his new assistant (Eddie Redmayne), as they labor to create these murals. In one astonishing moment, the two men apply a coat of primer to canvas with an almost Dionysian fury and are physically spent by the hard work. So is the audience just by watching them.
In between, a bitter Rothko talks to his eager new employee in a furious eruption of words, words that are delivered by Molina with the fiercest of conviction. The actor inhabits Rothko completely, giving one of those unnerving performances that makes you believe in the possibility of reincarnation.
Redmayne is the perfect foil as the would-be acolyte. Despite being saddled with a melodramatic back story (he is haunted by his parents' murder years ago), the character grows throughout the play's swift-moving 90 minutes, changing from awed tentativeness to a more critical, almost combative observer of genius in action.
Logan, who wrote the screenplays for such diverse films as "Gladiator" and Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," carefully develops this intriguing give-and-take. As Rothko rails and pontificates, Ken begins to needle. Rothko is not exactly a starving artist, Ken suggests, and the home for his latest works is not a contemplative, chapellike museum but an expensive watering hole for the titans of capitalism.
Rothko is also less than sympathetic about a younger generation of artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Stella and Rauschenberg usurping his prominence, something, Ken points out, the painter himself did when he, Pollack, de Kooning and others took over from the cubists.
The production, under the immaculate, tightly focused direction of Michael Grandage, comes from London's Donmar Warehouse, where Grandage is artistic director. Grandage allows Rothko's barbed, brutish yet often insightful comments on art to unfold with a theatrical flair that educates as well as entertains. After experiencing "Red," "What do you see?" is a question audiences will be able to answer with enormous satisfaction.
Art gets talked about a lot in John Logan's "Red." And it gets made as well: The play's two characters -- abstract expressionist star Mark Rothko and an assistant named Ken -- mix paint, stretch a canvas, prime it.
The downside is, we get to watch that paint dry.
Set in the late 1950s, the self-important London import that opened on Broadway last night centers on the two years when Rothko (Alfred Molina) worked on murals for the then-new Four Seasons restaurant, designed by Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
The audience stand-in is Ken (Eddie Redmayne), a young painter who apprentices with Rothko and is on the receiving end of endless lectures pronounced in definitive tones. When Rothko delivers aphorisms facing us, lit from below in his darkened studio, it feels like Moses coming up with the Commandments instead of merely receiving them from God.
Rothko is a mentor, inspiration, father figure and bully rolled into one towering package. Molina, his head shaved, has an imposing presence and looms over the rail-thin Redmayne.
The show, directed by Michael Grandage (who staged the Jude Law "Hamlet" on Broadway), is at its most engaging when this physicality takes over and the two men throw themselves into their work. It climaxes in a scene in which they slather maroon primer on a canvas in a competitive, quasi-sexual frenzy -- Rothko even lights up a cigarette afterward.
Christopher Oram's evocation of Rothko's studio, bathed in an underworld-like murk, is also striking.
But oh, the empty verbiage, the showoff name-dropping we have to wade through.
After enduring Rothko's pontificating for two years, Ken finally blows his top. He lashes out at his employer, spitting out exactly what we've been thinking for the past hour: that Rothko is a pompous prig, that he may act all high and mighty but he got a fat check to paint for the rich patrons of an expensive restaurant. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much what Logan has been doing, passing off grand statements as deep thoughts.
But they're only a smoke screen, and "Red" eventually emerges not so much as a sophisticated contemplation on art as a conventional coming-of-age tale.
"This is the first time you've existed," Rothko tells his underling after the big outburst. At last, Ken is a man. Can we end the show now?
"Red" looks great, and Molina and Redmayne give superb performances. But the play never takes off because it flatters its audience's intellect instead of challenging it.
Blathering about art doesn't automatically result in art -- or entertainment, for that matter.
Even before you see his eyes, you’re aware of the force of his gaze. Portraying the artist Mark Rothko, Alfred Molina sits with his back to the audience at the beginning of “Red,” John Logan’s intense and exciting two-character bio-drama, which opened on Thursday night at the Golden Theater. Yet the set of his neck and shoulders makes it clear that he is staring hard and hungrily, locked in visual communion with the object before him.
That’s an abstract painting, copied from Rothko, and it is indeed very red and very dramatic. But it is Mr. Molina’s stare that invests it with real drama. “What do you see?” he asks in the play’s first line, with an urgency that is part hope and part despair, with despair in the ascendant. By this time we have looked into his eyes. What we see, above all, is an artist seeing, and it’s impossible not to feel thrilled by the privilege.
“Red,” which arrives as fresh, yes, as paint from its recent premiere at the Donmar Warehouse in London, initially registers as a visceral exercise in art appreciation. Fortunately though, it turns out to be more a study in artist appreciation, a portrait of an angry and brilliant mind that asks you to feel the shape and texture of thoughts. Set in a New York studio on the Bowery in the late 1950s, the play follows the initiation of Ken (the excellent Eddie Redmayne), a newly hired assistant, into the uncompromising aesthetic of Rothko (1903-1970), who at that time was working on a commissioned series of paintings for the new Four Seasons restaurant.
Rothko was known to be a man of fierce opinions and didactic conversation, attributes that Mr. Logan latches onto gratefully and fruitfully. Much of “Red,” directed by Michael Grandage, unfolds as a combative Socratic dialogue between teacher and pupil, a master class of questions and answers about the methods and purpose of Rothko’s art. “I am not your teacher,” Rothko says, shortly after meeting Ken. But he sure sounds like it.
Rothko, you see, wants to be understood. And that requires understanding the whole history of Western painting, and Nietzsche and Freud and Jung and Shakespeare, to cite just a few of the cultural names that are not so much dropped as flung here. Ken, a fast learner, is soon giving as good as he gets. Sessions in the studio become heated debates on the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in Rothko’s painting, per Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy.”
This may suggest an all-too-familiar Broadway recipe for flattering middlebrows into feeling highbrow, allowing audience members to signal their sophistication with knowing laughs at intellectual references. Mr. Logan, whose previous work includes the drama “Never the Sinner” and the screenplays for “Gladiator” and “The Aviator,” doesn’t entirely avoid the expected conventions of fictional works about real (and usually anguished) artists, an often embarrassing genre.
But as much as any stage work I can think of, “Red” captures the dynamic relationship between an artist and his creations. (Only the Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical “Sunday in the Park With George” comes to mind as being similarly successful.) It’s one thing to say — or to have a character say — that an artist regards his paintings as his children. But it’s another to be able to look at that artist looking at his paintings, as Mr. Molina’s Rothko does, with a fraught, fatherly anxiety and wonder.
These feelings are not only parental. An obsessive lover’s possessiveness and perplexity glitter in this Rothko’s eyes like a fever as he runs a tentative, caressing hand over a canvas or looks out at the (unseen) painting on the fourth wall between the stage and the audience. His own work — which is exquisitely presented in facsimile by the designers Christopher Oram (set) and Neil Austin (lighting) in ways that reflect Rothko’s own conscientious theatricality — seems truly to speak to him. Watch him look up, abruptly and wounded, as if one of his paintings has just called to him and is not necessarily saying what he wants to hear.
That’s the primary relationship in “Red.” But there’s another one too, of course, one that allows it to exist as a proper play, with dialogue and confrontation and resolution. I mean the relationship between Rothko and his protégé, though Ken might argue that Rothko is too much a monomaniac to sustain such a human bond. Mr. Logan presents the younger man as the voice of both a puritanical conscience and a new generation of artists that threaten Rothko’s rule.
Ken is there to challenge his employer’s dismissal of the likes of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol (all of whom Rothko says lack depth and substance), and to plant doubts about the appropriateness of hanging contemplative paintings in a temple of consumption like the Four Seasons. So there are assorted, distinctly Oedipal clashes between the two men, played for all-out dramatic fierceness, and a gloriously frenzied, feral canvas-priming scene (staged to a swelling Gluck aria). Mr. Grandage (“Frost/Nixon,” the Jude Law “Hamlet”) is a canny craftsman of the theater, and he makes sure that the play’s intellectual arguments are sensually grounded.
Each character is given to pointing out the reductive sentimentality and banality in the arguments of the other, which conveniently allows Mr. Logan to stave off criticisms of being clichéd himself. The play also saddles Ken with some cumbersome dramatic luggage, including the obligatory Secret From His Past and a concluding scene that rounds off things a little too resonantly and expectedly.
Mr. Redmayne, who last month won the Olivier Award (the British version of the Tony) for his performance, keeps his character from ever seeming like a mere device. His Ken has a spine and a mind of his own, and you can feel both growing stronger throughout the play.
That he is able to hold his own against Mr. Molina’s Rothko is no mean achievement. In his strongest Broadway performance to date, the dauntless Mr. Molina embraces the artist’s egotism unconditionally, and he makes us feel the necessity of an overweening, humorless vanity and — to use a word that for Rothko denotes a cardinal virtue — seriousness.
It’s risky these days to play someone who speaks in grand statements and capital letters about Art and Immortality. We’ve become accustomed to the safe distance of winking quotation marks. But when this Rothko says there is “tragedy in every brush stroke” of his work, we believe him. The fear and hubris that never leave his eyes as he looks at his big but so vulnerable paintings guarantees that.
In the Playbill notes for Red (* * * out of four), John Logan's new work about the painter Mark Rothko, historian Simon Schama tells us that Rothko was, for all his demons, "far merrier than the legend of gloom-burdened genius allows."
That levity is nowhere to be found, though, in Logan's well-crafted but unsurprising drama, which opened Thursday at Broadway's Golden Theatre. Red presents its subject, a leading figure of abstract expressionism (though he resisted that label), as a tormented crank with no apparent social graces, and provides him with a curious, increasingly brash young assistant to emphasize these qualities.
There's talk of Nietzsche and Aeschylus, and debate over the merits of Rothko's various peers and potential new rivals. (Jackson Pollock, that other self-destructive maverick, gets a lot of attention.) As the play unfolds, Rothko is working on the murals he intended for, but ultimately withheld from, Manhattan's swank Four Seasons restaurant. This leads to much hand-wringing about the tension between commerce and art.
But the most illuminating and affecting aspect of this production, imported from London's Donmar Warehouse, is Alfred Molina's performance as Rothko. Under Michael Grandage's typically crisp, smart direction, Molina brings a wry humanity to the part that transcends tortured-artist clichés.
Not that the actor tries to make his character more likable, or give him the kind of predictable soft center that Logan avoids. This Rothko is a confirmed sourpuss, but Molina mines the humor in his irascibility without mocking it. He also finds in him a certain empathy, a grudging respect for the dignity and suffering of other gifted, troubled strivers.
Rothko's relationship with his employee, Ken, is crucial here. "I am not your rabbi, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher," Ken is told on his first day of work. But those roles are inevitably invoked by both men during their two years together, documented over a rigorous 90 minutes.
Ken's stubborn questions, and his very presence, force Rothko to confront the passage of time — a poignant issue for a former upstart who boasts early on of having "stomped ... to death" a previous generation of artists.
Eddie Redmayne, a delicately handsome British actor, relays Ken's youthful zeal but struggles with his Midwestern accent (the character says he is from Iowa). He and Molina share the stage with a series of canvases, fashioned by set and costume designer Christopher Oram to represent Rothko's works in progress — great splashes of deep, stark color that reflect creative and emotional turmoil.
It's a lot to compete with, visually, but the players aren't overshadowed. Ultimately, it's Molina who gives this Red its intensity, and its bright, aching finish.
"Red" may be all talk and no action -- but what talk! Scribe John Logan sends American abstract impressionist painter Mark Rothko into battle with his demons in this electrifying play of ideas, and the artist's howls are pure music. Alfred Molina is majestic as Rothko, defying the future he reads in the face of Eddie Redmayne, who holds his own as Rothko's young assistant. Although Michael Grandage's muscular production was trucked in from the Donmar Warehouse, where it preemed last year and was nommed for three Olivier Awards, the show feels as if it's come home to Broadway.
Logan (Oscar-nommed for his scripts for "Gladiator" and "The Aviator") takes us inside Rothko's studio in 1958, at a critical point in his career. Lionized among a peer group of painters that includes Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, Rothko has just been commissioned to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant being installed in the spectacular new Seagram Building going up on Park Avenue.
At this point, Rothko is in a state of mind that qualifies as "happy" for someone notorious for his black depressions, seething rages and bouts with the bottle. Happy enough, anyway, to hire a young assistant named Ken (Redmayne) to help him stretch his canvases and mix his paints, go out for Chinese food and listen to his rants against rival painters, greedy gallery owners and crafty museum curators -- not to mention the "goddamn-son-of-a-bitch-art-critics."
Molina, an actor in constant demand on both sides of the pond, plays Rothko at full titanic force. Establishing a big, authoritative presence (surprisingly enhanced by the bald pate), he turns in a robust portrait of the artist as a man of fierce intelligence and ferocious drive, undone only by the forces of time.
Set designer Christopher Oram ("Frost/Nixon") gives Rothko a space big enough to contain both his rampaging ego and his monumental aesthetic vision. Bare to the bricks and dark as a tomb ("Nature doesn't work for me," Rothko says about his aversion to painting under natural light), the studio is more like a warehouse, housing stacks of the gigantic color-saturated canvases that define his distinctive style.
Big as it is, the studio can't contain the artist's ambition to create his own monument. In a bout of grandiosity, he declares the capitalist shrine of the Four Seasons a proper "chapel" for the contemplation of his politically challenging work. When reminded by Ken that the murals will hang in a busy restaurant, he bullishly insists: "I will make it a temple."
For much of the first half of this two-hander, Ken has little to contribute beyond playing the quietly resentful sounding board for the great man's dictates on art, life and his own genius.
Everything that comes out of Rothko's mouth -- from his wonderful tip on how to approach his art ("let it pulsate") to his stark description of Jackson Pollock's death ("a lazy suicide") -- is worth straining to hear. But his relentless browbeating of Ken into submissive silence reduces his end of the dialogue to brilliant aphorisms that brook no response.
Happily, Redmayne (winner of a supporting actor Olivier and of both the Evening Standard and Critics' Circle awards for outstanding newcomer) is an admirably cool and subtle performer. Leaving the visionary bombast to Rothko, he conveys Ken's unspoken rebuttals in the stubborn thrust of his chin and the glare in his eye.
Over the two-year course of what is essentially a static drama, the most dynamic indicators of change are the paintings. Although Rothko maintains his pose of the roaring bull, the canvases tell a different story, as great, pulsating swaths of life-affirming red are gradually swallowed up by ominous patches of deadly black.
The turning point of the play, staged with operatic grandeur by Grandage, is so intense that anyone who leaves the theater should be shot.
Set (by sound designer Adam Cork) to a thunderous suite of classical music and lighted (by Neil Austin) in Stygian gloom, the scene finds the artist and his assistant preparing a fresh canvas. After stretching the canvas and mixing the paints, both men plunge thick brushes into their paint cans and in expansive synchronized strokes proceed to saturate the canvas -- and cover themselves -- with red paint.
Bloodied, as it were, Ken finds his voice, becoming less of a Socratic sap and more of a foil for Rothko. But even as the play expands into more interesting territory, allowing for genuinely combative dialogues about theories of color and the new pop-art movement and the role of the artist in a commercial world, Logan keeps turning the screws on Rothko.
Whatever we make of the grand fiasco of the Four Seasons commission, or think about the young generation of artists clamoring to be seen and heard, there's no doubt that Rothko is one old lion that will keep roaring until he draws his last breath.