The Rep’s production of “Red,” John Logan’s play about the artist Mark Rothko, is one of those Rep offerings that are so well-conceived and performed that you just want to throw buckets of money at the theater.
Joe Graves, as the conceited, brilliant, troubled artist, and Chris Wendelken, as Rothko’s maturing studio assistant Ken, do fantastic work in this 90-minute emotional freight train of a play. From the first minute of the play, “Red” is off and rolling, with profound and often funny dialog — even the foreshadowing of Rothko’s real-life demise gets a laugh — and perfect timing.
The Rep and the Arkansas Arts Center’s decision to collaborate — the play’s run coincides with the first few weeks of the Arts Center’s exhibition “Mark Rothko in the 1940s: The Decisive Decade” — was a terrific move, providing those intrigued by the play a chance to see the man’s work and those who love the work to know more about the man.
“Red” is a truly biographical play, about an artist who knows “black will swallow the red” — death will win over life — but Rothko stands for every generation that will eventually make way for the new.
The play takes place in Rothko’s studio in the Bowery, where he’s working on a commission by architect Philip Johnson for the restaurant that will go in the Seagram’s Building. It’s the mid-1950s, and Jackson Pollock is generally recognized as modernism’s greatest painter and Rothko has gained great fame for his color-field paintings (left to the audience’s imagination in the play).
Rothko rages to his new studio assistant that Pollock, by driving a convertible drunk, committed suicide — and that even buying the convertible was an act of suicide. “Why the fuck did Jackson Pollock have an Oldsmobile convertible?” he bellows, a line that’s funny but which could be answered with, why the fuck did Mark Rothko agree to decorate the Four Seasons restaurant with his paintings? For $35,000, a record sum in those days, that’s why. Rothko imagines the restaurant as a temple.
Ken’s evolution from unsure underling to confident man drives the dramatic action to the play’s denouement. When Rothko screams that pop art by Jasper Johns and Frank Stella and Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol is desecrating the gallery by hanging in the “same sacred space of de Kooning and Motherwell and Smith and Newman and Pollock,” Ken reminds him of the artist’s earlier expressed glee that his generation of artists killed cubism, and that Rothko once said “Tragic, really, to grow superfluous in your own lifetime.”
So the play is about Rothko and the New York art school, but the names Motherwell and Smith don’t have to mean something to the audience (though it’s a richer experience, I’d say, if they do). The play is also about losing stature and acclaim to those who come after you, no matter what your field is, about feeling outdated. It’s about subverting ideals to make money. And, in this case, about a relationship that evolves from employer-employee to mentor-mentored and father-son, the son eventually kicked out of the nest to make his own mark on the world.
“Red” runs Wednesday through Sunday through Nov. 10; curtain is 7 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 378-0405 for tickets. Those who’ve purchased tickets to the Arts Center exhibition will get a $5 discount on theater tickets.