… the red and the black …

RED is an intimate play about a profound painter in whose soul a Manichaean battle between life and death is played out on his canvases by a struggle between red and black.  The subject is the painter Mark Rothko and the playwright focuses on a key period in his life, when he’s designing a complete, coordinated group of large paintings for the expensive, high-rollers’ Four Seasons Restaurant, under construction in NYC.  On the one hand, he’s glad to be making the big bucks and creating his first total environment.  On the other, he’s uneasy that his work, quasi religious and inspiring of meditation, as he sees it, is headed for a restaurant filled with earthbound, self-interested, fashionable people.  Hardly the right atmosphere.

But he keeps painting, and talking, mostly on a high philosophical plane to the young painter he’s engaged as a helper in his insulated studio, dominated by vast canvases with their varying balances of red and black.  The two men spar for the duration of the play, the young one, Ken, always trying to get something from Rothko — instruction, insight, fatherly attention — and Rothko resisting, reminding him he’s nothing but an employee.

Much of the language is magnificent and intricate, drawn from Rothko’s own writings — and he was a prolific and subtle writer.  The interactions between Rothko and Ken can be intense, as in a remarkable, though self-conscious, scene in which, working the big brushes together to prime a huge canvas in Rothko’s russet pigment, the two painters engage in a frantic ballet.  Although there are only two human actors, the struggle between the life-affirming red and the black of death, makes the colors themselves protagonists in the play.  The struggle in Rothko’s soul is made visible through the battle of the colors we see on his on-stage canvases.  Sometimes red dominates, sometimes it seems gasping for breath under pressure from black.

The color red wins out in this play … for now.  Still, if you didn’t know that Rothko eventually committed suicide, you’d know it’s going to happen in the future, but not yet:  that’s the creative victory that’s the true theme of the play.  In other victories for “red,” the two painters reach a resolution that seems true-to-life and quite touching — Rothko teaches what’s really important for a young artist to learn, and nothing sentimental about it.  Red wins, also, in terms of Rothko’s final choice with regard to the Four Seasons commission.  And the audience wins in gaining a close look at the sheer tenacity of the creative will.  Alfred Molina is compelling as the oh-so intelligent, tormented and brutally determined Mark Rothko, and Eddie Redmayne does the job as the needy young painter.

This well conceived but relatively short, two-person play seems somewhat distant on the full-size, though artfully managed, proscenium stage.  Working with his dominant stage presence and large size, Alfred Molina does all that’s possible to off-set the discrepancy between the theater and the play, and he’s helped by the looming canvases.  Still RED, I think, would feel more natural in a more intimate theater or a theater in-the-round.  All in all, a small play in a big theater with enough strength to come through and illuminate a lot about Mark Rothko and his art.

RED plays at the Golden Theater in NYC west of Broadway through June 13, 2010.