In pairing abstract expressionist Mark Rothko with Ken, a fictitious young assistant, playwright John Logan creates an electrifying dialogue about art between professional and protégé. The title refers to Rothko’s preference for the color, which he says pulsates on the canvas under artificial lighting. This play focuses on Rothko’s 1958 creation of several giant abstract paintings commissioned as a mural for New York’s prestigious new Four Seasons Restaurant. But because Rothko, who arrived in America as a poor, Russian Jewish immigrant, was brought up to despise the upper class elite he remained bitterly skeptical of artistic success and wealth. Ken mixes Rothko’s paints, builds, stretches and primes his canvases and accepts his employer’s verbal abuse in silence. But eventually the young artist develops the courage to express his own opinions about art, in particular Rothko’s contradictory decision to accept an exorbitant commission to create the mural.
This 2010 Tony and Drama League Award-winning play premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse. The playwright requested his friend Robert Falls to direct this, the first post-New York production. Logan’s dramatic dissertation explores many topics, including the nature of art, the artist’s philosophy and the profound act of creation. Falls allows the drama to unfold naturally, both embracing the silences and coaxing the play’s much-welcomed comic moments to emerge unexpectedly. Sometimes “Red” feels a bit long, but relationships take time to build; and Falls and his actors create a palpable connection that lingers after the final curtain.
Edward Gero rules the stage like a force of nature as the gruff, alienated Rothko. dominating with his physicality, booming voice and grand gestures. Beautifully holding his own, Patrick Andrews works as Gero’s opposite, a subservient intern, visibly growing in knowledge and confidence until he boldly confronts and disagrees with the master in the play’s emotional climax.