If you equate red with passion, and with tragedy, and with blood, you’re not far off from what playwright John Logan has in mind in Red, the new play that has scooped up more Tony nominations than any other this season.
Red, of course, is the dominant color in the huge canvases that Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko is creating during the course of this 90-minute play, which unfolds over the two years or so in the late 1950s that he was working on a commission for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram Building. But red is also a life force to Logan’s version of Rothko – and the fury and single-mindedness with which he unleashes that force is likely to shake you to the core.
In Red, the iconoclastic Rothko (Alfred Molina) has just hired a new young assistant, a painter himself who will be on hand to stretch canvases, move paintings and mix paints. The famous and successful Rothko treats the assistant, whose name is Ken, as a pack animal: He rails at him, lectures him and makes pronouncements about art. But Ken (Eddie Redmayne) challenges the older man, especially on Rothko’s motives for creating the great paintings for the Seagram commission. And eventually each of them causes the other to change.
Red has about it a bit of the self-congratulatory air – a play aimed at people who care about Mark Rothko and Abstract Expressionism and who share with Rothko the idea of sticking it to people who are wealthy enough to afford meals at the Four Seasons. Yet that small tone of intellectual self-importance fades in front of the grandeur of the painter’s emotions – the feelings that he, and you, derive from those great paintings.
“I’m here to stop your heart,” Rothko says. “I’m here to make you think. I’m not here to make pretty pictures.”
Logan’s writing is terrific – in one memorable speech, he describes the sound of diners at the newly opened restaurant as “forced gaiety at gunpoint” – and the two performances are riveting. There’s also a fascinating undercurrent about contemporary life (contemporary to us, as well as to Rothko), in which the artist rails against the “niceness” and “fineness” of popular taste. He’s talking about Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, but you can certainly imagine that he means the current craze to go with what’s popular and what’s least objectionable. If Rothko were around today, I, for one, would love to hear him rail.