John Logan's Red Is a Battle on Canvas

Plus, Bellona serves a visual stew while Lend Me a Tenor lends laughs

John Logan's Red (Golden Theatre) is, simultaneously, as wonderfully astute and as dishearteningly naïve a piece of playwriting as I can recall. Much that's meaningful gets said, during this 95-minute study of the interactions between the painter Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) and his new assistant (Eddie Redmayne), but meaning isn't drama, and the bulk of Red's dramatic substance is conveyed by Christopher Oram's sets and Neil Austin's lighting, which focus on several simulated Rothko canvases. They highlight the tense, tormented undercurrents of battle that churn through Rothko's late works; relatively little in the spoken text does so, despite the combative energy of Molina's performance.

The high point of Michael Grandage's staging, too, is a moment of pure visual drama, devoid of words, when the two men, upstage center, their backs to the audience, jointly prime a huge canvas, covering its white rectangular expanse with the quick-drying, fast-fading, reddish-brown goo. The struggle their action evokes isn't between two people, or within the artist's conflicted soul: It's the battle between the artist and his materials. The painter's empty canvas, the sculptor's lump of clay or block of stone, the writer's blank page or blank screen, the immobile dancers waiting for the choreographer to set them moving—every art begins with the terrifying void that dares you to fill it. And every move you make to do so sets up new conflicts; the terror never goes away.

For Rothko (1903-1970), that particular struggle lay at the core of the works that defined his style, wall-size color fields that appear monochrome until closer inspection reveals the thick layers of contrasting or conflicting shades underneath. Rothko viewed the colors' joust for precedence on the canvas as human events; he resisted being called an "abstract expressionist," and spoke of people viewing his paintings in the terms of interpersonal encounters. Logan's script weaves into its fabric many quotes from Rothko's published remarks—some wise, some startling, some caustically funny, and some purely pigheaded—on this and on the many ancillary conflicts that surround the painter's central fight. Red pours out apothegms on all the interlocking fights an artist has: with his patrons; with society at large; with predecessors; with successors; with dealers and critics and the hangers-on who eternally clutter an artist's world. Rothko in real life pitched deeply into all these brawls; Red's dialogue is spattered with highlights of each embroilment.

Rothko's mark: Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in Red
Johann Persson
Rothko's mark: Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in Red

Details

Red
By John Logan
Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200

Bellona, Destroyer of Cities
By Jay Scheib, after Samuel R. Delany's Dahlgren
The Kitchen
512 West 19th Street, 212-255-5793

Lend Me a Tenor
By Ken Ludwig
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Street, 212-239-6200

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But Logan has chosen, oddly, to make all these potentially dramatic elements extrinsic to what occurs onstage. Red begins with the new assistant's hiring and ends with his dismissal; almost nothing in between comes from the assistant's presence or his specific effect on Rothko. At best, he's a mouthpiece, transmitting things said to or about Rothko offstage; what should be action, or at least confrontation, often feels more like an interview. Logan gives the assistant a generic name, Ken, and Redmayne often seems to resemble an angst-ridden Ken doll as he strives to nail his employer on this or that contradiction in Rothko's thinking.

As if to compensate for his generic name, Ken gets an "interesting" past, involving his parents' traumatic death. This leads nowhere, not only because Rothko declines to acknowledge its importance, but because we, like him, never learn anything else about Ken's life or ambitions, or what he wants from the situation. "You know nothing about me," the fed-up Ken shouts accusingly at Rothko. But we don't either, so we can't tell what Rothko might or might not be missing out on.

Redmayne strains, hard, to give the nebulous role substance; he uses, unhelpfully, a generic "American" accent, marred by weird lapses into British vowel sounds. Molina's accent, too, oddly lacks even a vague hint of Rothko's Russian-Jewish heritage. However, Grandage's production, lively and smartly paced, cunningly uses studio busywork—always fascinating to us non-painters—to cover the script's lulls and bare patches. Between the intelligent remarks and the intense visuals, theatergoers may not even notice how much drama has been left out.

The warring visual elements in Jay Scheib's Bellona, Destroyer of Cities (the Kitchen), like those in Red, often speak louder and more cogently than its words. Scheib's source, sci-fi doyen Samuel R. Delany's 1975 novel Dahlgren, takes place in a dystopian future city that waveringly seems to resemble 1975's New York, or our current one, as often as it does the bleak future. Buildings burn, nothing seems to function, everyone's on the edge of flipping out, and yet, apparently, nobody's starving or more than customarily miserable. They've all adjusted to the anarchic upheaval, compensating for it with heavy boozing and lurches into violent, orgiastic sex, streaked with racist fantasies. (Delany is African American.) Inside the convulsing chaos, a middle-class family comes apart and a young girl who dreams of being a poet gets her wish, and bad reviews.

Erratically acted, these half-perceived, disconnected events (some of which repeat, like theatrical tics), seem less vital to the experience than the visual and sonic stew into which Scheib stirs them. Peter Ksander's set, inventively lit by Miranda k Hardy, cunningly uses a few odd angles and unexpected exits to turn a simple subdivision of the space into a never-ending warren of unrelated rooms. On a vertical rectangle of screen overhanging stage left, Scheib and his co-videographer, Carrie Mae Weems, project a bi-level mix of tape, stills, and live video feed, sometimes echoing and sometimes counterpointing the onstage action. The work's substantive the way a stew is: not a distinct single flavor but a sampling of many. All of them tend toward disquiet: You leave unsure exactly what you've seen, but pretty glad you don't live in that particular future. Oh, right, you do.

Visual in the classic way of traditional farce, Lend Me a Tenor (Music Box) requires no review, only laughter. In this standard door-slamming mixup, about a bush-league opera company stuck with a corpsed-out guest star, the lines and events, unlike those in any other Ken Ludwig play I've ever encountered, all actually function coherently in context. Justin Bartha is fetchingly wistful in the lead, and Tony Shalhoub's bullying eyes, acting epics all over the stage, are a multimedia event in themselves.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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