As a visual artist, it’s possible that I would have found no script for Red, a portrayal of Mark Rothko, wholly acceptable. Yes, the man was given to paranoia, megalomania, and outsize judgments upon his fellow mortals, with the harshest sentences reserved for his colleagues in the art world. But this theatrical personality was bound to reinforce the stereotypical portrait of the artist as a difficult loon. Entertainment was all but guaranteed. Insight into Rothko’s work, postwar abstraction in general, and the demands of artistic production were not.
Red would have been a lousy play if Rothko had monologued for 90 minutes in the lofty manner of his writings. For the sake of theatrical conflict, author John Logan invented a studio assistant named Ken. (It’s tempting to consider how this play might have turned out differently if the other character had been the non-fictional studio assistant Oliver Steindecker, who discovered Rothko’s body after he committed suicide by slashing his wrists in 1970.) I have no quarrel with the fiction, but Ken is an absurd fabrication. What was a treyf, naive Iowan doing in the studio of Mark Rothko, the son of a rabbi with commensurate aspirations to grasp the unnamable essence of being?
Ken seemed designed to gall Rothko as much as possible without getting thrown out of the studio before the play could go anywhere. In an early scene, Rothko bursts into a hysterical tirade and flings paint at Ken for uttering an ill-timed, barely intentional answer to a rhetorical question. It’s hard to decide whether the setup for the tirade or the tirade itself is the greater contrivance. Worse than either of them was the arty nonsense that followed in which Rothko and Ken, trading lines, spell out a list of things that one might associate with the color red. It has
acting exercise written all over it.
The character worsens when Ken recalls the snowy morning when he discovered the bloody bodies of his parents, killed with a knife during the night. This unfortunate turn in Ken’s biography looks like an attempt to offset the stark contrast between his background and Rothko’s. Ken needed a past but not a mashup of the origin stories for Superman and Batman (a farm boy with murdered parents!) minus the heroic impetus. The killers are never found, no motive is suggested, and nothing comes of it except that Ken admits to painting imaginary portraits of the murderers, which we never see. The image of snow and blood is then reused to within an inch of its life as an analogue for red paint and white canvas, and death and life, for the rest of the play. Actor Karl Baker Olson deserves credit for the fact that there was a shred of truthfulness in this walking, talking implausibility.
Thomas Derrah didn’t have it so bad playing Rothko. Rothko gets the best lines, of course, and Derrah delivered them with great ability and sincerity despite a script that asks for rants at times. Derrah instilled Rothko with a curmudgeonly, avuncular charm in passages in which his conversations with Ken approached the sort that an older artist might have with a younger one. Most of the interest of the play comes from these exchanges. At one point, Ken, having been ordered to read Nietzsche, tries to interpret the art of Pollock and Rothko in the context of Birth of Tragedy. The result is a little pat, but it reveals less-than-obvious aspects of Rothko’s work and the ways in which he saw himself.
In addition, Rothko is at work on a cycle of paintings intended for the restaurant of the new Seagram’s Building (which did in fact take place), and these conversations reveal the tensions between artistic integrity and hired work that ultimately doom the commission.
Cristina Todesco designed a convincing set for Rothko’s studio, which was unstylishly installed in a disused gymnasium, dingy and lacking comforts except a couple of chairs, a side table where the bottle of Scotch resided, and a phonograph from which Mozart played and Chet Baker was cruelly ejected. Logan envisions
an imaginary painting ‘hanging’ in front of the audience, which Rothko studies throughout the play. This production follows suit, and Derrah gets great mileage out of his pained interactions with the fourth wall. He reveals much of Rothko’s artistic struggle through plain physicality, a grip of the head, a squint, an exhausted stare into the creative and existential abyss where the audience sits.
The play could have used Ken, as a younger painter, to talk about why Rothko’s style of art fell out of favor or explored the degree to which Rothko’s animus towards the course of modern art history was justified. But despite Olson’s effort, Ken was too flat a figure for the job, and despite Rothko’s promise at the beginning of the play to Ken,
I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher, the character has no choice but to become all these things to the non-character so that some dramatic action takes place. Spirited performances and canny direction makes Red an entertaining production, but the profundity and triumph of Rothko’s mature works call for an equally ambitious dramatic effort that Red doesn’t provide.