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I once was at an exhibit at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art and walked by a group of people standing in front of a blank white wall where a hipster-looking guy was expounding on the importance of the absence of color to a group of his friends. I walked by after they had left. A small sign to the right read, ”Sorry, exhibit under construction.”
Art is often about interpretation rather than the actual image. Appropriately enough, John Logan’s Red, a play about the 1950s abstract expressionist Mark Rothko now playing at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum through Sept. 9, opens with the question: ”What do you see?”
The play is a somewhat fictionalized account of a commission Rothko received for a series of paintings for Manhattan’s Four Seasons restaurant. While Logan’s Rothko can sometimes seem like a caricature of a pretentious artist, Molina doesn’t take himself as seriously as Rothko does, bringing moments of insight and humor to the man’s gruff exterior. At one or two points, he almost breaks out into Spider-Man villain territory to slam his much junior assistant (Glee‘s Jonathan Groff) for his limited art history knowledge and need for approval.
Molina, who originated the role of Rothko in London and then in a Tony-winning 2010 production on Broadway, has an easy chemistry with Groff as the great artist begrudgingly becomes a mentor and father figure. (Eddie Redmayne played the role in London and New York.) Groff’s unassuming good looks and earnestness play well against Molina’s Rothko. When the two paint the primer on a canvas, they move together like one person in a well-choreographed dance. The teamwork needed to move the huge canvasses in the studio that make up the one-set show also provide a window into their collaborative efforts — even when they are fighting in the very next scene.
You don’t have to know anything about Rothko or his oft-misunderstood body of work to appreciate Red. (Curious playgoers can get free admission to L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which houses eight Rothko paintings.) The first half of the 90-minute play feels almost like Art History 101, with Rothko name-dropping Caravaggio, Niezsche, Pollock, Stella, and various other high-brow artists and influencers. By the second half, Logan’s play delves more deeply into the personal stories of the two characters, and focuses more on how the individual experience of each affects their work.
Red moves fast, never feels strained, and the sharp acting by Molina and Groff make it a worthwhile night out. A
Tickets: Center Theatre Group