HARTFORD, Conn. -- In John Logan's unfulfilling, often ambiguous play, "Red," American abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko is a force of nature, especially as he is being played by Jonathan Epstein in director Tazewell Thompson's riveting, propulsive production at TheaterWorks in downtown Hartford.
"Red" covers Rothko's work over a roughly two-year period on a commission he never completed from architect Philip Johnson to create a series of murals for the posh Four Seasons restaurant in Johnson and Mies van der Rohe's new Seagram & Sons headquarters building on Park Avenue.
The $35,000 commission was the first time Rothko, who died in 1970 at the age of 67, would create a series of related paintings and for a specific space.
Rothko is determined to create something different, he tells his assistant, Ken (Thomas Leverton). "They are a series," Rothko says. "They'll always have each other for companionship and protection. And most important they're going into a place created just for them. A place for reflection and safety."
The truth, as Rothko realizes when he decides to see the room for himself over dinner, is anything but a place for reflection and safety. The dining room is long and narrow, totaling roughly 50 square meters. For the paintings to be seen they will have to be hung just over the heads of the elite diners. In nastily ironic essence, Rothko would be creating a series of "overmantles," as he scornfully calls "those paintings doomed to become decoration, you know, over the fireplace in the penthouse." It's a reality he cannot abide.
"Red" is vurtually all talk and little action, exterior or interior, and the talk is wearingly familiar -- the value and nature of art; the clash between masters and moderns; commercialism versus purity; the natyre of artistic vision, what we see when we look at a work of art (the play begins with Rothko examining one of his large canvases and challenging the newly arrived Ken with the question "What do you see?" a question that reverberates, directy and indirectly throughout the play); what is color, a specific color, and what do mean when we describe something in terms of a color or hue.
But with the exception of an awkward, terribly contrived moment in which Ken describes a traumatic experience when, as a seven-year-old boy, he and his younger sister found the blood-soaked bodies of their parents in their bedroom, victims of two burglars, there is nothing that approaches the human element beneath the artist.
At one point, Ken rightly rails at Rothko for not knowing anything about him, not evidencing any curiosity about who he is or what his own work as an artist is like. Unfortunately, we know no more about Ken than does Rothko and only marginally more about Rothko, who talks singlemindedly about the influences on his work, the inspiration for these murals, his tastes -- and distates -- in art and artists. "Red" often feels like an academic exercise -- interesting from an intellectual point of view but inherently without drama.
At the same time, "Red" is not without theatricality -- one sequence in particular when Rothko and Ken prepare the red base for one of the murals. Like a man possessed, Epstein's Rothko moves his brush in broad, bold swashes across the canvas working virtually from the top down while Ken works more methodically nearer the base of the canvas, poised on his haunches, bouncing up and down like a race car revving its engines. It's a breathtaking sequence that gives vibrancy and life to a play sorely in need of both.
Given Logan's shortcomings, the accomplishments of Thompson and his two actors are even more remarkable. In terms of the acting and the overall pace and rhythm, this is a rip-roaring evening of theater. Epstein is mesmerizing as the demanding, hard-smoking, hard-drinking, driven Rothko, who warns Ken at the very beginning that he is Ken's employer, not his teacher or mentor and then spends the rest of the play teaching and mentoring. Credit Leverton with giving back as much as he gets in a role that is more reactive than active.
In the end,"Red" falls far short of whatever compulsion drove Logan to write it. What we see, what we may want to see, is what we get.
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