It's talky, contrived and a little creaky, but John Logan's "Red," the two-actor play on the boards at Everyman Theatre, is also remarkably absorbing, even uplifting. Who knew art history could be so much fun?
Sorry, that sounds flip. And "Red" is anything but flip.
The Tony Award-winning work, set in the late 1950s, conjures up an encounter with Mark Rothko, the celebrated abstract expressionist who created the equivalent of epic operas from vast fields of color. On a single canvas, a few painstakingly applied shades interact with and within each other.
"Look at the tension between the blocks of color," Rothko (Bruce Randolph Nelson) tells Ken (Eric Berryman), a naive young assistant the artist hires at the start of the play. "They exist in a state of flux. … They ebb and flow and shift. … They float in space, they breathe."
There is really no need for any recreations of Rothko paintings in "Red," even though the play is an extended examination of the artist's opening line: "What do you see?" The artworks are all imagined — at several points, one or both characters stare intently at the fourth wall, a device that somehow manages to avoid becoming tiresome.
The paintings in question are ones Rothko creates on commission for an up-market New York City restaurant. He has convinced himself that they will civilize the space, will get diners to think and respond in deep ways. Ken finds the idea ridiculous, which sets up the play's most significant conflict.
As the crusty Rothko keeps talking himself into the project, and Ken starts to learn just how rich the painter's imagination and ideals are, the audience gets to savor heady discussions on the philosophy of art and commerce.
Even when things get all classroom-y, it's easy to follow the reasoning, to feel the passion of the convictions, especially given how dynamically Nelson brings it to life. This is one of the actor's most assured, multilayered performances, in movement, gesture and articulation. Nelson makes even the preachiest portions of text sound natural, no small feat.
Berryman does sensitive work as Ken. When he first tries to see what is in Rothko's painting besides red, the actor's brow is furrowed, his face a study in I've-got-to-act-serious. When he tries again much later, his brow is smooth, his gaze confident. Ken has seen the light, or at least a pathway to it, and Berryman makes the moment register.
There are many deft touches in the staging, directed by Donald Hicken, right down to the way master and assistant eat their Chinese take-out food — Rothko with a fork, Ken with chopsticks; the generational divide in one quick image.
The most forced portions of the play involve Ken's grim back story, and a scene of the two men prepping a canvas, as if engaged in some furious sex act. But most of work clicks smoothly and stays neatly focused.
This staging clicks, too, with a vivid set by Daniel Ettinger and generally spot-on sound design by Neil McFadden (I could live without the all-too-predictable burst of Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons").
The start of the final scene, with Rothko sitting on the floor, hands covered in red paint, is placed too far downstage for those not sitting in the first few rows to see. The scene's impact comes from the whole audience sharing Ken's fear that the artist has done himself injury.
That self-inflicted demise would come a decade or so later, long after most people had learned to see the astonishing universes contained in Rothko's ever-pulsating colors.
If you go
"Red" runs through Dec. 8 at Everyman Theatre, 315 W. Fayette St. Tickets are $10 to $60. Call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.