LA Review: 'Red'

Center Theatre Group and the Donmar Warehouse at the Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by David C. Nichols

August 13, 2012

Photo by Craig Schwartz
"What do you see?" is the first line of "Red," a deceptively simple beginning to a richly layered treatise. John Logan's acclaimed 2009 two-hander about abstract expressionist Mark Rothko—winner of the 2010 Tony Award for best play—hits Los Angeles like a keenly aimed paintbrush splatter and lands in our collective forebrains.

The opening query comes from Rothko (Alfred Molina, never better), seated in an armchair downstage studying the abstract canvas before him like a sacred text or a beloved child. To this legendary iconoclast (1903-1970) the painting is that and more, and one doesn't have to know Rothko's legacy or tragic end to feel the intensity that artist and creation radiate.

Indeed, the relationship between Rothko and his work proves central to "Red," which director Michael Grandage oversees with invisible control. Beginning in 1958, when Rothko accepted a commission from the Four Seasons, a luxury restaurant, the play pits the didactic, uncompromising Rothko against aspiring artist Ken (the wonderful Jonathan Groff), whom he hires as his assistant at the outset.

Icon and neophyte engage in an escalating colloquy that incorporates everything from discussions comparing Western and European art to a dizzying array of references, most notably Nietzsche. Logan has done his homework, so much so that during the first 20 minutes I feared that the play would be a crash course in art history. But with the first nonverbal transition, in which Rothko and Ken change the upstage hanging canvas as composer–sound designer Adam Cork's ornate music plays, "Red" enters thematic areas that the commercial stage hasn't addressed since Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's "Sunday in the Park With George."

Ken, we gradually perceive, is not just a foil with a troubled backstory (perhaps playwright Logan's weakest element). He functions as both philosophical counter and, increasingly, quick-learning student to Rothko, whose all-encompassing obsession unpredictably zigzags between arresting silences and nerve-jangling rages. Credit both actors, their seamless give-and-take eschewing grandstanding, for their execution of the astonishing scene in which the two men prime a canvas together like cogs of an engine. It's worth the show.

Molina, his shaved head and burly physique bearing an uncanny resemblance to Rothko, is supreme. Never shirking from the painter's spiky narcissism, this actor's actor commands the stage much as Rothko reportedly commanded his Bowery studio (superbly realized by set designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Neil Austin). Opposite so mercurial a force of nature, Groff (who replaces Olivier-winning originator Eddie Redmayne) doesn't miss a beat. Whether choking back his frustration, dutifully hammering a canvas frame, or, climatically, calling out Rothko on his resistance to Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, and others in the next generation, Groff wields an acute interior palette with a technique that conceals technique. So does "Red," which, if not groundbreaking, is nevertheless a remarkable achievement.

Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Aug. 12–Sept. 9. Tue.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m. (213) 628-2772 or Casting by Anne McNulty and Erika Sellin.

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