"Red" at the Golden Theatre, March 18, 2010
The Donmar Warehouse has transferred its latest London hit to Broadway, creating the story behind Mark Rothko's creation of the murals commissioned for The Four Seasons restaurant in 1958. In this two-hander dramatization by John Logan, Rothko (Alfred Molina), once l'enfant terrible of the modern art world has just accepted the commission and hires Ken (Eddie Redmayne) to assist him in the project. Ken, an aspiring young artist himself from Iowa, is looking to learn from a master with hopes of jump-starting his own career.
Mr. Logan's script creates lots of tension and drama as Rothko rants, raves, mocks and insults with total disregard, while expounding his own bloviations of how the younger generation doesn't "get" the meaning of his art, convinced that those who don't are too stupid to realize true genius. Ultimately, Ken has had enough abuse and speaks out for the first time, declaring Rothko's movement as obsolete just as Rothko himself once declared of the cubists. Ken plays the final straw as he accuses Rothko of selling out with the commission. Rothko rescinds the commission and keeps the art for himself, firing Ken to push him forward in his own career.
As Rothko, Mr. Molina delivers. He stalks the stage, berating and brutalizing everything and everyone around him, yet we still see just how much of his posturing is simply that each time Ken "passes" another test. The nuances are well-played. Mr. Redmayne's Ken is passionate and driven, though he has not mastered a flat midwestern accent - his brogue rings through frequently, occasionally disrupting the fourth wall. I'm at a bit of a loss to understand why Actor's Equity felt it necessary to grant a waiver for Mr. Redmayne to accompany this transfer. He's obviously a talented actor, but I found nothing in his performance (or the role for that matter) that required his presence in this production. Surely there are a dozen young actors in New York alone who could have offered as much or more as Mr. Redmayne.
Mr. Grandage keeps the tension high, making clever use of music for old-style crossovers between scenes. He keeps up the choreographed approach when Ken and Rothko prime an oversized canvas, the two splashing almost as much paint on themselves and the stage as they do on the canvas. He may have been going for a parallel effect that was used in "Pollock" when Ed Harris recreated a full painting onscreen. Many in the audience were more impressed than I was with the demonstration.
It's a compelling production, well-acted and solidly directed but I didn't quite see the reputed brilliance from its billing.