1 Apr 2010
Review by Tulis McCall
I love the Brits. Love, love, love. They won’t admit it, but they love to talk. Even better, they love to write text. Verbal mountain climbers they. Here we have a British writer working with British actors telling a story about an American Painter. This must be like rubbing your head and patting your stomach at the same time. I still can’t do that.
Anyway – these folk totally get away with this. They get away with this AND I have a reading assignment that could take the rest of my life.
I don’t know a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g about Mark Rothko except I have a passing relationship with his work and once saw a terrific retrospective at the Guggenheim. Like Looped this play is a tale of a famous person, and who knows what is or is not true? Was Rothko a purist who was concerned only with the creation, care and feeding of his paintings or was he a self referential and obsessive man who had no relationships with anything human? Both? Something else entirely? Don’t know.
What was true was that I was completely engaged in this production. It’s a take-no-prisoners kind of a show. Rothko (Alfred Molina) not only likes the sound of his own voice, he likes to hear it bouncing off another person. His new assistant Ken (Eddie Redmayne), whom Rothko never actually addresses by his name, is a willing soundboard who also has ideas of his own that he cannot help firing – more in reaction than actual thought. The two are engaged in a pas de deux at the center of which is a series of paintings that Rothko was to create for the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram’s Building. The commission is antithetical to everything for which Rothko stands, and it is driving him buggy. Hence: The Plot.
It’s a thin premise, but in the hands of this team of collaborators it thrums with the rhythm of a steeplechase. The source of the power is all Molina. His performance begins before we enter the theatre and one wonders how long it takes from him to shed Rothko after the curtain. He moves like a locomotive, and even when he is still you can feel the throttle pulsing. Nearly as powerful is Redmayne who does not shrink in the face of Molina’s ever-advancing storm. He does weaken himself in his monologues, like a kid who steals the car for a joy-ride on a spring night and has a little trouble keeping the car on the road. But these spates are short and soon righted as these two men link arms and canter down the path that Josh Logan has created.
To his credit, Logan leaves out as much as he puts in. Rothko is revealed at a particular moment in his life (1958-1960). There is no mention of his journey from painting people and places to abstraction. There is little foretelling of his suicide that is a mere 10 years away – although there is a nod in that direction in the final act of the play, most of which was unnecessary – as is the biography in the program. In the end, Red is not about Rothko, it is about the paintings he left us. It is about how he scooped out the nugget of his life and layered it onto canvases over and over again. It didn’t make him happy. It kept him alive. And then it didn’t.
And his preferred homework assignment? “You cannot be an artist until you are civilized. You cannot be civilized until you learn.” Therefore: Nietzsche, Byron, Wordsworth, Aeschylus, Turgenev, Sophocles, Schopenhauer, Yeats, Manet, Velásquez, Caravaggio, Matisse, Pollock, Van Gogh, deKooning, Motherwell– yeah, yeah, all white guys, but this was 1958 so we will pardon the egregious error. In addition there should be a general working knowledge of philosophy, theology, literature, poetry, drama, history, archeology, anthropology, music – just to name a few.
Well, what are you waiting for? Get going.
"Intense and exciting two-character bio-drama."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Talky but fascinating play."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"The play never takes off."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Is bound to resonate with anyone who appreciates the art of fine theater."
Roma Torre for NY1`
"A compelling example of how a thinking theater can simultaneously entertain and educate.
John Simon for Bloomberg
"A prime example of theater of the exclamation point."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"It certainly has electric moments, ..., but they don't coalesce into compelling drama."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"Lacks the sizzle one usually expects to enjoy in a hot Broadway drama."
Michael Sommers forNewJerseyNewsroom
"Engrossing, often enthralling new play."
Michael Kuchwara for Associated Press
Frank Scheck for The Hollywood Reporter
"Electrifying play of ideas."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...