Art becomes drama in John Logan’s Red, the Tony-winning production from the Philadelphia Theatre Company. The play, directed by Anders Cato, opened last night at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, demonstrating the solitary world of a diminishing Mark Rothko.
Red takes the form of a few prolonged dialogues between Rothko and his newly hired assistant Ken. While working on a massive commission from the acclaimed Four Seasons restaurant, Rothko rants like a man who hasn’t cornered someone’s ear for a decade. Ken, an aspiring artist, listens and questions Rothko’s ideas with increasing confidence. Eventually he leads Rothko to doubt his decision to accept the commission.
Cato’s set is cavernous and shut off from the world. Shelves and tables contain the ingredients and instruments of the painter. Recreations of Rothko’s work lean haphazardly around the studio, with the fourth wall recurring as one such painting that the characters observe frequently. Between scenes, the various fixtures of Rothko’s studio shift arbitrarily, demonstrating the passage of time and hinting at the changing trends of art that the two artists endlessly discuss. Rothko’s cave–absent of the natural light that the artist so abhors–is spacious enough for towering shadows to represent Rothko’s legacy and mortality. But the production uses shadows most poignantly when the master and his apprentice set out to prime the canvas, which is backed against the fourth wall. The artists are shadows projected onto the cloth from the back of the stage. With a backdrop of intensely escalating classical music, the painting resembles something of a dance whose meaning is unmistakable.
Red is a sea of dichotomies. Logan builds them directly into the structure of the play by providing only two characters in constant argument. Rothko and Ken are like point and counterpoint. The actors fit snugly into these roles, particularly Stephen Rowe (Rothko), who tempers his escalating fits of passion with cold intellect and dry humor. As Rothko, he is a master of the rant. Hailey Joel Osment is convincing as Ken. His lines don’t have the weight of Rowe’s, resulting in a more subtle impact. But Osment’s casual presence is the right one for Ken, who plausibly embodies the antidote to the Rothko’s notion that art is suffering (and only suffering). By foiling Rothko’s stubborn philosophizing, Osment, as Ken, reveals that the artist’s charisma masks deep flaws.
Although Rowe and Osment at times take the power of Logan’s writing for granted, both add energy through their delivery. In one pivotal scene, Rothko and Ken argue over names for the color red. They drift so gradually from conversation to poetry, it is shocking when you realize that they have left the realm of realism that dominates the play everywhere else. In this moment something in the fabric of the presentation has ruptured (fittingly when the inadequacy of language is under a microscope) and sheer creative energy spills forward. Rowe’s and Osment’s talents are instrumental to this astounding accomplishment.
What the men argue about isn’t always easy to pin down. This is probably Logan’s intention. Old rivals new. Lightness takes on seriousness. Simple stands against complicated. Romantic against Classical. Logic vs. emotion. There’s even a bit of class warfare. The characters don’t always represent the same themes. Logan also innovates a new conflict for the age-old grab bag of dichotomies, conceived specifically for this play: red vs. black. Rothko fears the day when black will overtake red in his work and his outlook.
The first appearance of the color red is the very first thing the audience sees: a single burning ember of Rothko’s cigarette, before the artist’s silhouette appears against the growing light. It is a beacon of loneliness, and the audience can assume that Rothko will end the play in the same place. Ken will try to affect the legendary artist and keep that metaphorical ember lit. The question is whether the stage will ultimately fade into total blackness, or whether the red light of that fire will remain.
Red closes on November 13.