ALBANY, N.Y. -- "What do you see?"
Those are the first words out of the mouth of American abstract expressionist artist Mark Rothko in John Logan's rambling play, "Red," which is being given a somewhat archless production at Capital Repertory Theatre.
Rothko (Kevin McGuire) poses the question to an awkward, twentysomething young man named Ken (David Kenner), who, wearing a business suit and tie, has arrived at Rothko's Manhattan studio to begin work as Rothko's assistant on a major commission Rothko has accepted to design a series of murals for the new upscale Four Seasons restaurant in architects Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe's Seagram & Sons headquarters building on Park Avenue.
It is not an idle question and it surfaces often over the course of "Red." It's a question that Rothko, played by McGuire with near unwavering, fleet-footed, driving intensity, has been contemplating in the solitude of his studio; a question that goes directly to the heart of his lifetime career as an artist.
Logan's intermissionless play covers the period 1959 through 1961 during which Rothko struggles with the project and the issues it raises about the nature of art, its place in the world, how we perceive art, how artists see the world, how we see the world -- things in the world -- not only through our own eyes but through the artist's. When we see red, what are we seeing?
It's an odd irony about "Red" -- though by no means the only one -- that, despite the play's two-year time span, there is little sense of time-passage, movement, especially in Rothko, as much a function of Logan's often unfocused writing as it is the result of McGuire's narrowly defined performance.
The currents of time, the effects of experience, the getting of knowledge play more perceptibly in Kenner's Ken. But overall Logan has little interest in letting us know much about these men. Ken is given an awkwardly structured monologue about discovering, as a boy, the bloodied corpses of his parents in their bedroom, raising questions Logan has no interest in exploring. Because there is little here that defines either artist at a human level, there is even less to engage us in the broader descriptions of their intellects.
Red, in the end, is just a color after all.
RED by John Logan. Directed by Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill; set designer, Roman Tatarowicz; lighting designer, Stephen Quandt; costume designer, Thom Heyer; sound desgner, Steve Stevens; painting consultant, Tony Iadicicco. Through May 19. Eves.: Tue.-Thu. 7:30; Fri., Sat. 8. Mats.: Sat. 3; Sun. 2; May 15 at 2. Capital Repertory Theatre, 111 N. Pearl St., Albany, N.Y. Tickets: $65-$20; students with valid ID $16. (518) 445-7469; capitalrep.org. 1 hour 28 minutes
Mark Rothko: Kevin McGuire
Ken: David Kenner