Red at Park Square Theatre

Steven Lee Johnson and J.C. Cutler in Red. Photo by P. Ytsma.

John Logan‘s Red (at Park Square Theatre, through Oct 7) suffers from a problem often afflicting two character plays: sameness.  Indeed, in Red, the same basic scene gets played and replayed.  Mark Rothko paces his NYC atelier, contemplating the large murals he’s preparing The Four Seasons, a swanky restaurant in architect Philip Johnson’s new Seagram’s Building.  The paintings frighten him, anger him, intimidate him, all at once.  He prepares fresh paint and tries to apply it, but can’t quite.

So Rothko talks – rants, really – about painting, about Art, Nietzschean tragedy, the nature of light, the significance of color, his hatred/jealousy/love of more successful artists like Pollock and Picasso.  The significance of color: “I’m terrified that Black will some day swallow Red.”  About shapes: “These apertures are gaping mouths.”  The disgusting shallowness of contemporary art-lovers: “They want disposable Zeitgeist art.”  His passion, his breath-taking ambition, the depth of his anger, astonish.

The one developed thread in Red comes from Rothko’s meek assistant, called, simply, Ken.  If Red works (and I believe it does) it’s because of Ken’s calm, persistent and building presence.  We see him hired, given menial chores (cleaning brushes, mixing paint).  But his real job is to listen to the Great Man, to suffer (and indeed, initially, relish) Rothko’s abuse.  But Ken has an ego of his own – he’s an artist, and has genuine opinions.  Finally, in a delightful outflowing of anger, he calls Rothko to task: “You’re a solipsistic bully, filled with grandiose pretension, with shrill self-importance.”  Etcetera (his explosion goes on for quite a while).  We want to stand and cheer.

Rothko may be an insufferable [your carefully chosen word here] but he is never ever boring.  He pulls us in, charms us with his bristling intellect – and then makes us hate him.  This tension is the essence of this piece and if you’re ready to hold two opposite opinions of this complicated man, well, Red may be the play for you.

As Rothko, J.C. Cutler doesn’t stint, never pulls back from making this man simultaneously hateful and fascinating.  He looks like a crazed accountant, prowling the atelier, swilling scotch, letting Art pour over him.  Declaiming (I confess I entertained a dark fantasy about breaking Cutler’s constantly jabbing index finger).  It’s a rich, mesmerizing (and utterly honest) performance.  As good is Steven Lee Johnson as Ken.  His progress from sweetly meek to proud is convincing.  I can’t reveal the play’s ending, but know that Johnson makes it work.

I found Richard Cook‘s staging of the canvas sizing unnecessarily cutesy; it undercut this hugely important moment.  Still, the richness of the performances is a tribute to Cook’s directorial prowess.  The designers – led by setter Lance Brockman, with able work from costumist Andrea M. Gross, lighter Michael P. Kittel, soundist C. Andrew Mayer and propper Sarah Holmberg) do outstanding work.  Red is very easy on the eyes.

For more information about John Olive please visit his website.

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