It’s all talk and no action. But it’s Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne talking. John Logan’s Red the latest import from London, centers around Mark Rothko, the American Expressionist painter, and his newly-hired assistant Ken, performed by Redmayne in an impressive Broadway debut. Set in Rothko’s studio, the five-scene, 90 minute drama is a stimulating portrayal of the conflicts of an artistic spirit while the struggle to accomplish and the fear of being irrelevant battle it out.
Rothko, firmly established as an accomplished artist, has recently been commissioned to paint a series of murals for Four Seasons restaurant and hires Ken to assist him in the studio. “I am not your rabbi, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher,” he says during their first conversation. Despite that statement, the two quickly engage in Socratic-style conversations, exchanging highly charged statements about literature, philosophy, society, and yes, of course, art. (Rotho dismisses newcomers Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol, saying, ”Prosaic insects!… Presumptuous, counter-jumping, arriviste SONS-OF-BITCHES!”).
Rothko does most of the talking at first, and, performed by Molina, he is mesmerizing to listen to. Fierce, intense and tireless, he rails against the changing community of art – his critics, his fans, his customers and even himself. In the hands of a lesser-skilled actor, Rothko would most likely come across as a pretentious egomaniac, but thanks to Molina’s insurmountable skill as an actor, he is fascinating. Unlikeable, yes. But still fascinating.
Red touches upon Rothko’s childhood and previous career but the main conflict centers around his struggle with two relationships: one with his assistant and one with his art itself. It is apparent that Ken represents what Rothko both despises and fears – the future of art, a future that Rothko is not sure he will be a part of.
This conflict is more apparent as Ken matures and develops into a more formidable opponent for Rothko. The process of this maturity feels a bit formulaic, but Redmayne’s performance as he lashes out at his employer is so compelling that again, the flaws of the script can be overlooked. When he questions the intentions behind Rothko’s murals and articulates the idea that Rothko’s greatest, most famous work could actually be his undoing, both he and Molina achieve a tension and fear so accurate it is almost tangible.
Rothko’s conflict between commercial success and artistic accomplishment is undoubtedly a familiar one to those who work on The Great White Way. Despite the accomplishments of Red, , and there are many, one has to wonder: what would Rothko himself think of the show?