There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend: One day, the black will swallow the red. So says Mark Rothko in John Logans play Red, while taking on the largest commission of his life: a series of massive murals in 1958-59 for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City.
The blackness of despair finally overcame his creative impulses 11 years later, and he took his life. But at this moment, hes still vital, one of the last potent exponents of his style, trying to hold his ground at the top of the art world as a wave of Pop Art poseurs (as he would say) prepares to wash him away.
Logan, who won a Tony for Red, is best-known for Oscar-nominated scripts for The Aviator and Hugo. (He also worked on the James Bond movie Skyfall.) He paces this intermissionless, two-man play with a filmmakers rhythm: Intense scenes followed by quiet ones, emotional outbursts succeeded by dryly funny interludes.
At first, Rothko (played with blazing ferocity by Rob Kahn) seems the more complex character: aggressive, analytical, alcoholic, argumentative, anxiety-ridden. (And those are just the As.)
His newly hired assistant, Ken (Jeremy DeCarlos), quietly endures Rothkos lectures on art, capricious and sometimes cruel behavior and bouts of self-directed and outward-spewing disgust. Ken wants to learn to paint, and who better to teach or inspire than the last roaring lion of Abstract Expressionism?
But as the show goes on, Ken realizes Rothko is a muddled man: exulting in a ommission that makes him pricier than his peers yet contemptuous of money, verbose about how art should be appreciated and then insisting masterworks be approached only through silence.
Rothko seems afraid to make beautiful art yet reveres Rembrandt and Michelangelo, who did. He sneers at popularity yet envies those who have it. (The real Rothko told a friend he wanted to paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.). Ken weathers Rothkos storm of bluster to meet him as a philosophic equal, and De Carlos performance builds to match Kahns fervor.
The play has a laser-like focus: We never hear about Rothkos other work or family. (And its anachronistic: He rails against Andy Warhols Campbell soup cans, which appeared in 1962.) But that focus keeps the momentum high, and Logan uses quotations and experiences from Rothkos life intelligently.
Actors Theatre of Charlotte always takes care with presentations, but lighting designer Hallie Gray does unusually good work here: The lighting is subdued enough (with one telling exception) to mimic the low studio illumination Rothko preferred, yet bright enough to bring out contrasts in the reproduced canvases on the stage. Like Gray, director Chip Decker illuminates the text through his actors without overstressing.
The play hints at the fate of the Four Seasons murals. I wont spoil any surprises, except to note that one Black on Maroon now lives in Londons Tate Modern museum. A vandal defaced it with spray paint just six weeks ago, claiming, Art allows us to take what someones done and put a new message on it. Apparently, Rothkos work still has the power to provoke.