A perfect play should provoke, inspire, educate, entertain, and delight its audience, and Red is certainly a near-perfect play. Berkeley Rep's latest import from Broadway won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2010, as well as the Drama Desk Award, and we can see why it's a tightly written two-person drama centering an American artist about whom no major movies have yet been made: Mark Rothko. And it achieves all the above goals as any good play should, though it might be a little short on the delight factor. Given that it's about Rothko, though, we'd probably be asking too much for it to be delightful, really.
The play was written by John Logan, an accomplished screenwriter who's been nominated for Oscars for his work on The Aviator and Gladiator. He was working on the set of Sweeney Todd in London when he first became inspired by Rothko, having wandered into the Tate Modern and seen the room full of Rothko's Seagram Murals. He knew little about Rothko before that, but he says he found the paintings "profoundly moving and kinetic in a strange way," and then via a placard on the gallery wall he learned the story of how Rothko had painted 40 of these paintings, all in red tones, for the walls of the Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan's Seagram Building. It was, in 1958, as Logan writes in the play, "one of the flashiest commissions since the Sistine Chapel," and the Seagram Corporation (via architect Philip Johnson) was going to pay Rothko $35,000 for the job, which would be about $2 million in today's dollars. SPOILER ALERT - At some point during his work on the murals, which he completed at a feverish pace, Rothko decided to give back the money and not allow his paintings into the restaurant, because he didn't feel they would be appreciated properly there. So, you see, Rothko was a pretty principled, egotistical, and serious artist, and that forms the crux of Logan's play.
As Rothko, actor David Chandler does a marvelous job of conjuring this man who was hardly as dramatic or showy a character as his contemporary and friend Jackson Pollock. Rothko kept, as he liked to say, banker's hours, working 9 to 5 in his studio, and Chandler's Rothko is not so much a tortured man as he is a rigorous, intellectual, persnickety, and deeply self-involved one. Chandler illuminates the capricious temper of Rothko, but also his weakness, his occasional gentleness, and his complexity. The character is downright Shakespearean really, summoning Nietzsche and Freud into everyday conversations about art and thinking deeply and tirelessly about the import and visual success of his own work. And the beat-by-beat dramas of Logan's play are Socratic this is about an artistic father engaging an eager son in a battle of wits about the meaning of art so a lot of the success of the pacing here is due to the masterful direction of Les Waters, in what will sadly be his last production at the Rep as he's taken a new job as artistic director at Louisville Rep.
The only other character in the play is a studio assistant named Ken, played with great earnestness, skill, and subtlety by John Brummer. We were never bored with watching either of these two actors, and despite the fact that the main drama here is an artist's obsession, the tendency to slip into pedantry was there at every turn.
The only real moment of painting we get to witness is probably the highest on the delight quotient for this show; Ken and Rothko mount a fresh canvas on the back wall of the stage and go about priming it in a dark shade of red. Watching this simple act, which they do in a couple of minutes to a classical soundtrack, holds a power of its own and represents a significant part of the shows budget, with all that freshly stretched canvas and gallons of paint getting used every day.
Ken ultimately challenges Rothko, representing as he does a younger generation of artists like Lichtenstein, Warhol, and Johns who were already coming up and eclipsing abstract expressionism by the early 60s. And the two duke it out for a few minutes in what becomes the climactic conflict of the play.
A play about Rothko and this pivotal moment in his life has to, certainly, maintain the sense of seriousness and struggle that this one does. In an age of flash cuts, internet attention spans, big ensemble casts, YouTube clips, and theatrical experimentation, it's refreshing to see a two-man play on a static set be able to accomplish so much. (One early interaction between the two men in which they rattle off every association they have with the color red is particularly poetic, and surprisingly moving.) But it's not a play for everyone. You had better care something about Rothko, or about this period in art, or the challenges of the artist in general, or you might leave the theater just feeling a little blue.
Red plays through April 29 at Berkeley Rep. As always, you should call for tickets if you're under 30, and get a discount. Or, purchase them here.