Red, by John Logan, MTC, Sumner Theatre, Until May 5
For an artist who strenuously opposed the commodification of art, Mark Rothko’s success caused him deep discomfort. His Seagram Murals embodied the conflict. At first, he accepted a prestigious and lucrative commission to paint an abstract series for an exclusive Manhattan restaurant, The Four Seasons. Years later, after the works were nearly complete, Rothko dined there, amid the self-important chatter of New York’s elite. Appalled, he reneged on the contract, and kept the art for himself.
John Logan’s Red is a dense two-hander that takes us into Rothko’s studio as he paints the murals. It hinges on the relationship between the artist (Colin Friels) and his assistant (Andre de Vanny). Refreshingly for the MTC, the play requires an intelligent, attentive audience to work its spell, and there’s nothing dumbed down about its content, which surges from Socratic argument over important developments in 20th century art to idealistic screeds denouncing the stupidity and venality of the arts industry.
Friels gives an outstanding performance as the tormented, cerebral, and terrifically self-absorbed artist. Holding red and black in dramatic equipoise, it’s a portrait drenched in fury and passion, leached at by a sense of impotence and growing cynicism.
His Rothko has heavily invested in his outsider status. He wrestles eloquently with the dead hand of material success, unwilling to accept that the revolution of Abstract Expressionism has become orthodoxy, to be superseded in turn by new movements, including Pop Art, he despises and can’t understand.
As his interlocutor, de Vanny gives a skilled portrayal, building from easily cowed naïf into confident devil’s advocate, eventually confronting his mentor in a furious monologue.
The production is not without problems. The large canvas of the stage, decked out as a Manhattan studio, doesn’t – as Rothko’s works do – use scale to promote intimacy. There are all sorts of unobtrusive brush-strokes missing in the interaction between master and servant, especially during Rothko’s raging, and Alkinos Tsilimidos’ direction, while it generates strong performances, fails to engage a spatial palette of any depth – one technique theatre has over film and TV.
It remains one of the MTC’s better efforts, and anyone who hankers for robust aesthetic discussion will find it stimulating.