Red at South Coast Repertory Takes on Mark Rothko

John Logan’s play Red, set in 1958, is about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko and a younger painter hired by Rothko to be his shop assistant shortly after Rothko gains a major commission to paint murals for the ritzy Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan’s Seagram Building. It won the 2010 Best Play Tony Award, so it’s a big deal. And though it’s been produced in Southern California several times, South Coast Repertory’s current production makes it a big deal for the only two people in Orange County who get paid to write about theater and art: Weekly art critic Dave Barton and theater critic Joel Beers. (Okay, maybe other people get to write about it, but they don’t write for OC Weekly. So suck it.)

Take it away, gents!

OC WEEKLY: Thumb’s up, or thumb’s down?

DAVE BARTON: Thumbs up. While I think the LA production a few years back with Alfred Molina and Jonathan Groff was better overall, in performance and direction, the play’s ideas—about art, understanding your history, passion vs. commerce, selling out, burying our artistic fathers—are important and pretty difficult to fuck up.

JOEL BEERS: Up. Logan’s script is smart and deep and funny, and this David Emmes-directed production features a couple of killer actors: Mark Harelik and Paul David Story. It’s way overwritten—NO ONE would ever talk like this—and while it’s less a character study than a deeply philosophical meditation on everything from mortality to creative expression, it’s still an oddly moving piece.

How did the play reflect or support your pre-existing knowledge about Rothko?

BARTON: The play certainly nails his aesthetic, his precision, his obsession with low light, his pontification and morbidity to an extent that’s consistent with what I knew about him, so the character is recognizable to me. Where the play takes dramatic license that I don’t buy is its suggestion that his final action [on the commission] was influenced by an assistant. Ken really only exists to be a sounding board/punching bag for the Rothko character throughout the majority of the play. When he ends up having a profound effect on the artist at play’s end, it feels written, not real; the assistant is a fiction and just exacerbates my feeling that the part is underwritten.

BEERS: No idea. Had none. I mean, I knew the name Rothko. But I couldn’t have picked out a painting of his in an abstract-expressionist police lineup. But it certainly compelled me to want to learn more.

The ending is interesting. For the second time in the play, the word red, which is also the title of the play, is spoken by Rothko’s assistant after being prompted by Rothko. But Rothko’s reaction is much different. What did you think?

BARTON: I think it hearkens back to the opening conversation in the play, in which Rothko asks Ken what he sees as he stares at one of Rothko’s paintings. Ken is ill-equipped to answer with the detail that Rothko demands and gets dressed down for his naiveté. When the question is asked again at the end, Ken gives the same answer more defiantly. The final moment is an interesting interpretation—the son figuratively killing the father. I think Emmes misses the moment here, giving the play a more hostile ending than it’s asking for.

BEERS: Hmm. I thought for the first time that the apprentice, the son, had earned the respect of the master, the father. And rather than perceive it as defiant, I thought it an interesting meeting of the minds between someone such as Rothko, who felt so strongly that every artistic gesture must Mean Something, and Ken, who voiced no problem with art that just existed for art’s sake, even if that art was inspired or saturated in a pop-culture sensibility. I saw more of a connection, rather than a break

Would you recommend this to people who know a lot about modern art, or those who don’t? Or both? Or neither?

BARTON: It’s a 90-minute debate about the things I mentioned above, so if none of those hold any interest for a person, I can’t imagine the play would be very interesting. It requires some understanding of the artists the two characters talk about to get most of the lines. If an audience just stares blankly at it . . . is that because the play is too academic, or because people simply haven’t had a very good arts education? I’d tend toward the latter.

BEERS: Dunno. I don’t know shit about modern art. But I liked it. I think if people like stuff that grapples with Really Big and Important Ideas, they’ll like it regardless if they know the difference between a de Kooning and Rothko. And if they know the difference? All the better.

Red at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Feb. 21. $20-$77.

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