Of all the sacred monsters of the art world, surely none was as discomfited by a flat, still canvas as Mark Rothko. If you were to distill this formidable abstract-expressionist painter down to two words — folly, I know — you could do worse than "dramatic tragedian." For Rothko, a man of raging Apollonian complexity who eventually killed himself in the most Dionysian fashion, a sedentary painting was no better than a black coffin.
Heck, it might as well be a black coffin.
For the viewer to really feel anything, Rothko believed, paintings had to be pulse, converse, throb, clash and, above all, move. And since Rothko saw his artworks as vulnerable children capable of both evoking and suffering tragedy, any movement necessitates the pumping of blood, which in turn requires copious quantities of, well, "Red."
Such dichotomies — within Rothko, within artists, within any remotely self-aware person on the wrong side of a peak of popularity — are at the very core of John Logan's superbly taut and compelling drama, a two-character play imagining a series of confrontations between Rothko, staring down the sunset of his career, and Ken, a fictional young assistant who teases out the truth of the main man and who is, like most ambitious young people, both in the thrall of his reluctant mentor and needing to stomp on his grave.
Logan — a longtime Evanston resident who has morphed into one of America's most accomplished and highest paid dramatic writers for stage and screen — began this labor of love at the Donmar Warehouse in London (where I first saw it under the thrilling direction of Michael Grandage). From there, "Red" moved to Broadway with its original British cast of Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne (a movie with this pair is in the works). The Washington-based Edward Gero and the Chicago-based Patrick Andrews, who star in Robert Falls' Goodman Theatre co-production with Washington's Arena Stage, are the first Americans to play these roles (just as Falls is only the second person to direct this play).
The red-hot "Red," though, is about to get the kind of international roll-out that Rothko himself would have envied.
"Red" has lost very little of its formidable force. One rap against this play in New York was that it was a tad pat and, in the final analysis, populist and predictable. Perhaps. So what? There are great pleasures and insights that come in the theater in the presence of a masterful structuralist — especially an unpretentious and inquisitive one like Logan, who clearly wants to take what he has learned from writing celluloid blockbusters and apply it to the crucible of the theater. Better yet, Rothko is here directed by someone who has known and understood his Chicago-honed work for years and is a fine match for Logan's Chicago style. And although Falls, inevitably, presides over a bigger production than the original — Todd Rosenthal's formidable design combines the messy realism of the Rothko studio with a sense that his entire creative process is contained by an outer canvas skin — it retains the crucial sensuality of person-to-person combat.
"Red" is the kind of play that gets you thinking and talking about your own life. And given that Rothko himself was anything but ordinary (on the surface, at least), that is a formidable achievement. If you've got any blood in your veins, you'll lean forward into "Red," pondering its exploration of aging and the predatory instincts of the young, along with its formidable existential provocations, as epitomized by the ever-fluid battles between the red of life and the black of death in Rothko's own creations. Among other questions, Logan is interested in whether life is all about pushing back the black (even at the cost of spilling some red) or achieving the kind of Karmic balance that surely eludes me, if not you.
There's another matter in play. In "Red," set in 1958-59, Rothko has just received a lucrative commission from the architect Phillip Johnson to design murals to be hung in the tony Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building in New York. Rothko justifies the sellout by saying he plans to ruin everyone's digestion; Ken calls him out as a hypocrite.
I've always suspected this theme has a lot to do with Logan in Hollywood and the conflicts therein. Either way, it helps make this play about a good deal more than the art world: rare is the soul who has not stared down at some check or another and wondered if it was worth the price.
Gero is quite different from Molina. He brings a more emotional quality to the role. If Molina's Rothko was a raging, terrifying, unstinting King Lear, Gero captures the old man in more reflective, agonized mode. It is, you might say a kinder, gentler Rothko than the original. Sure there's a price. But if Molina was almost all red, Gero is paying more attention to the black. And that's a perfectly valid, and moving, choice.
Perchance Falls, a big softy beneath that pretentious crust, pushed things away from a clash of the Gotham titans. By casting Andrews, who always locates a character's action in believable personal pain and who pushes himself to his limit here, he has not copied Redmayne's much icier take, which was that of a very handsome young devil, a young Rothko really, ready to use anything to stick the knife in the old man's back. At the Goodman, the knife still eventually goes in and the old king gasps (Falls' last moment is a thriller). But it's the Midwest. The young man feel bad as he assumes his place.
When: Through Oct. 30
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Tickets: $25-$84 at 312-443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org