The lights come up on a painter's studio with huge canvases, some painted, some blank. Mark Rothko (Bob Edes Jr.) stands in work clothes, smoking a cigarette and staring intently at something hanging on the fourth wall that separates him from the audience. Ken (Sean Glazebrook), a well-dressed young man, enters.
"What do you see?" asks Rothko, gesturing at what we soon realize is a painting."Let the picture do its work. Lean into it. Engage with it. Now what do you see?"
"Red," Ken says.
This cunning simplicity launches the fascinating play Red. It's 1958. Rothko, a curmudgeon with a vanity that knows no bounds, has received a lucrative commission to paint a series of murals for The Four Seasons restaurant. It is a great coup for an artist who has struggled most of his life with few creature comforts. Rothko, however, considers his pared-down paintings as spiritual sanctuaries — "places" meant to be entered visually for contemplation. He believes their presence is so strong, they will entice viewers to meditate, even when placed in a chic restaurant.
Rothko's work during this late period had evolved into colored rectangles on a single-colored ground — abstraction taken to its minimalist limits. When Ken answers "red" to Rothko's question, it's both comic and accurate.
In Edes' masterful handling, Rothko is a force of nature. He is restless and out of control — partly because of a liberal imbibing of whiskey. He continually harangues Ken, who aspires to be a painter himself, and hires the young man as his assistant. But Ken holds his own and gradually overcomes the intimidation. The character study of Rothko and the conflict between the two men make Red a hypnotic evening.
Rothko savors the victory of his generation: crushing cubism. No one can be a cubist anymore! And he claims to have learned all he knows from past masters. "It's not the blank canvas you fear," he says. "It's Velasquez." How do you achieve something great, but also new. How do you surmount the past?"
Ken has his personal struggles as well. Rothko's argument for the emotional power of color takes on a meaning for both men, and the master continues battling other developments in the art world.
The highly accomplished and literate drama won author John Logan a 2010 Tony Award for Best Play, and it is a challenging work. Director Aimee Hayes deserves a tip of the hat for gathering a top-notch cast and guiding the actors to strong, nuanced performances. — Dalt Wonk