Red: In which I review a play without discussing the acting

Note: This was written (originally as sort of a joke) for B’s younger brother, who is a theater person and has a a blog of his own filled with excellent play reviews. I realized when I got to the end that I’d not reviewed the acting so much as the play itself. (Or rather, I tried to avoid talking about the acting at all costs.) I guess this is what happens when you send a novelist to the theater.

Logan, John (author). Red. Directed by Laura Gordon, Forward Theater Company, Madison, WI. 2014.
Starring Jim DeVita as Mark Rothko; Nate Burger as Ken, his assistant.

Mark Rothko immigrated to the US from Latvia at a time when it was still part of the Russian Empire (1913) to avoid conscription into the Imperial Army (the same reason my ancestors left, at around the same time, actually). His parents settled in Portland, where he grew up one intellectual Jew in a big colony thereof. He attended Yale but dropped out. Nevertheless, he was extremely well-read. He was among the most important artists of the post-WWII era; along with such painters as Jackson Pollock and William De Kooning, he launched a movement termed abstract expressionism (by the critics, of course). In the later part of the 1950s, Rothko accepted a commission (to the tune of $35,000) to provide a series of murals for the (then under construction) Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. Drawing inspiration from a stairway designed by Michelangelo, Rothko said he was going to create a series of earth-toned paintings that would produce a claustrophobic effect and ruin the digestion of every son-of-a-bitch who dined at the restaurant. After completing some forty paintings, Rothko called the project off and returned the commission. Twelve years later, in 1970, he committed suicide.

Most of this I learned from Wikipedia,[1] but I also learned it from the play Red, which attempts to solve the riddle of why Rothko called off the Four Seasons project and returned the money. As is clear from the play (and from Wikipedia), Rothko knew when accepting the commission what the restaurant would look like, what its clientele would be like, and so forth. So why did he finally decide that it wasn’t the right spot for his works? That is Red‘s central mystery; although it attempts an inquiry into other things, such as how an artist’s life might influence his work, the commodification of art, the shifting of art movements, or what exactly abstract expressionism even really means (as a movement, to the viewer, etc.), the solution to the Four Seasons question is really its unique contribution to whatever myth may have sprung up around Rothko, if there is one.

Much of the dialogue, at least on Rothko’s part, seems to have been lifted directly from things he said, and from all of that he seems to have been an extremely intelligent, well-read and well-spoken individual. The parts that aren’t so lifted fall a bit short of profundity—it is a bit insipid, in the middle of a dialogue about color choice in abstract art, to have the characters fall into a shouting match wherein they both name things that are red. I know that roses are red—I have looked outside from time to time. Instead, tell me what it means. And, as an aside, lobster aren’t red. Cooked lobsters are red.

Rothko’s assistant Ken is a fictional character, although Rothko did have assistants, and it was one such assistant who found him dead when he killed himself—there is a scene in the play with red paint that nods and winks at this fact, but the play stops short of delving too deeply into Rothko’s emotional life. He says, “I do get depressed sometimes.” Everything else is intellectual discussion. Ken’s life we see a little bit more of, but the central story of his character—that he was born in Iowa, his parents were murdered when he was young, he went through several foster homes and wound up in New York because he wanted to be a painter—is not sufficiently used, except to give Rothko a few moments to play Freud. In addition, it feels like the background of a fictional character–something created to be dramatic.

This lack of emotional connection is frustrating, because the play really does begin to feel like watching two people talk about art for ninety minutes. One feels, looking at his biography, that Rothko’s wife Mell may have been a not insignificant part of his life; he dined at the Four Seasons with her right before deciding to give up the commission, and committed suicide not long after they separated. There is a lot of potential in the story right there, without the need to introduce a fictional assistant. But she, and indeed his marriage, children, and family, is never mentioned. That said, it is nice to have characters who are emotionally resilient and don’t take the slightest criticism as an excuse to dissolve into melodrama. Imagine if after one fight we were treated to how depressive and potentially suicidal Rothko could be—this would be terrible.

Jim DeVita plays Rothko. He’s quite thin and manic, which . . . DeVita seems to be thin and manic in most of his roles. But I think this was a good fit for him. He has shaved his head—an odd choice, since I don’t think Rothko did that, but in context it works, although in combination with his glasses it looks a little bit Breaking Bad for my taste. His Russian accent was so subtle that I wondered at times if I were imagining it. Ken, played by a guy from APT whose work I have somehow totally missed, is a good actor, but his costumes did not strike me as sufficiently period. In one scene, he wears a t-shirt that looks like it came from the Land’s End catalog last season, not from 1958, when the play is purportedly set. But whatever he’s wearing, Ken carries off his role fairly well, refraining from lapsing into mawkish sentimentality in the scene wherein he recounts his parents’ murders. (Although perhaps he doesn’t avoid it altogether—in my notes, I see the words “My parents are dead!,” suggesting I found something hilariously Batman-like about the scene in question.)

I can see why this play won awards.[2] It is trying very hard to be smart. Having cribbed much of its material from a very smart guy, it largely succeeds at that. Perhaps in the end, its intellectualizing of the artistic process is its downfall. Rothko’s stated reasons for turning down the commission are emotional; however, since we have no access to any of his interiority, and lack an emotional connection with him, it is hard to take his feelings about/toward the paintings as seriously as perhaps we should, and it is hard to really evaluate his reasons to determine if he’s even telling the truth.

Bottom line: As we were walking into the theater, we met a friend of Bryan’s who is a professor at UW. This fellow said something like, “Well, I’ve done my sixty, sixty-five hours this week; I’m ready to have a beer and go sleep through a play somewhere” (except picture this in a charming New Zealand accent). The play was involving enough that for a fledgling art nerd like myself, it was interesting, and for someone looking for a relaxing evening, it was probably not overly taxing.

[1] I don’t mention Wikipedia here to suggest that the play is superficial in its treatment of Rothko’s biography, or not exactly. Rothko’s Wikipedia page was clearly written by someone(s) who was/were very deeply interested in him as an artist, and consequently it has a lot of information. But somehow, I had hoped that the play might provide something more in-depth than what I could have learned from skimming the wiki on my phone right before the curtain went up. On the other hand, I do wonder that this may not be a totally valid criticism, because obviously there’s only so much that can be known about someone’s life.

[2] It won the Tony award for best play in 2010, and also five other Tonys, although a few of them were things like scene design and lighting design that impact the performance and are not as pertinent to the text of the play itself. It also won a 2010 Drama League Award and a Drama Desk Award.

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