Last November, U.K. theater critic Michael Billington, reviewing Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Edgar Degas drama The Line, wondered: ”Has there ever been a great play about an artist?” Presumably he was excluding musicals, because, ahem: What about the Georges Seurat-centered Sunday in the Park With George? About a week later, John Logan’s Red — starring Alfred Molina as 20th-century abstract expressionist Mark Rothko — premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse, and it has just been unveiled on Broadway. Ask, Mr. Billington, and ye shall receive.
Logan, a Chicago playwright?turned?Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Gladiator, The Aviator), was savvy enough to focus his 90-minute piece on just two characters, Rothko and his fictional assistant, played by Eddie Redmayne (The Good Shepherd). The action never leaves Rothko’s New York studio, a shabby, dimly lit hovel decorated by the painter’s unfinished oversize canvases; the time is 1958, when he’s just received $35,000 (about $2 million today) to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in NYC’s Seagram building. We aren’t shown any of Rothko’s childhood in Russia, or his family’s immigration to Portland, Ore. We see none of his early paintings — the street scenes, before he developed his signature, color-soaked, stacked-rectangle style. Though we hear him pontificate on any number of subjects, we don’t actually observe him interacting with contemporaries like Jackson Pollock (”He thought painting mattered… Does the poignancy not stop your heart?”) or up-and-comers like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol (”Prosaic insects!… Presumptuous, counter-jumping, arriviste SONS-OF-BITCHES!”). He deals with no ”goddamn-son-of-a-bitch-art-critics,” or ”disgruntled viewers.” There’s no possible way to shoehorn Rothko’s five-decade-spanning career into one bioplay, and thank goodness Logan didn’t try — otherwise we’d still be there.
What we do see is a booming, blustery Molina (who’ll be tough to beat come Tony Awards time) as the man whose genius was perhaps outstripped only by the enormity of his ego. But it’s no mere scenery-chewing turn; for that, catch his gleefully villainous Doc Ock in Spider-Man 2. This is something…well, to steal one of Logan’s lines (this is Rothko describing his signature painting style): ”I do a lot of layers, one after another, like a glaze, slowly building the maze, like pentimento, letting the luminescence emerge until it’s done.” Molina is luminescent.
There’s a little too much talk of how paintings ”pulse” and a few of the assistant’s background details seem unnecessarily maudlin. No doubt these were inserted to give his character depth, so he’d be more than just Rothko’s sounding board. While the role may not be as well-drawn as Rothko’s, Redmayne certainly knows what to do with it. But what would any work about a tortured artist be without a few rough patches? Art, as Steven Sondheim wrote in Sunday in the Park With George, isn’t easy. A-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800.432.7250)