John Logan’s Red, winner of six 2010 Tonys (including Best Play), has at long last made its Orange County debut in a production so pitch-perfect, it’s hard to imagine even the original Broadway team doing it any better than it’s being done at South Coast Repertory.
Mark Harelik stars as world-famous painter Mark Rothko (circa 1958), sharing the stage with Paul David Story as his fictional assistant Ken, an aspiring young painter hired around the time that Rothko had been commissioned to create a series of mural-sized canvases for the soon-to-be-opened Four Seasons Restaurant in Seagram & Sons’ fancy new Park Avenue digs, the 38-story Seagram Building.
Rothko makes it clear from Day One that he will be neither rabbi nor father nor shrink nor friend to Ken, and that whatever tasks he assigns his assistant will be of the most menial variety. “You’ll help me stretch the canvases and mix the paints and clean the brushes and build the stretchers and move the paintings and also help apply the ground color—which is not painting, so any lunatic assumptions you make in that direction you need to banish immediately.”
Though Rothko does ask Ken’s opinion of his latest canvas at their first meeting, what the young man thinks about Rothko’s art, or art of any kind for that matter, is of no interest whatsoever to the painter, nor does Rothko seem to have any curiosity about his assistant’s life or work outside his studio.
Despite Ken’s initial meekness, Red really takes flight when the young man begins to acquire his own voice, first by calling into question Rothko’s integrity as an artist in pocketing a cool $35,000 (about $275,000 in today’s currency) to provide artwork for what was to be, after all, nothing more than an upscale eatery, and later by putting Rothko in his place, which as far as the young man is concerned, seems increasingly to be situated in past tense.
Not surprisingly, Red can get talky, but intelligent talk it is, philosophical, or arrogant, or poetic, and much of it about Art with a capital A.
Still what makes Red sizzle is a relationship between the two men that ends up far more like the one Rothko initially rejects (rabbi-pupil, father-son, shrink-patient, friend-friend) than he ever could have foreseen.
Under David Emmes’ inspired direction, Harelik is simply superb as force-of-nature Rothko, whether railing against a pop culture that “likes” everything from television to soda pop to shampoo to Cracker Jack, or imparting pearls of wisdom, or cracking the occasional joke.
A perfectly cast Story matches Harelik every step of the way, giving Ken such a fresh-faced innocence that it becomes all the more powerful and moving when the younger man begins to do more than respond in short sentences, most notably in a devastating childhood recollection, and later—when at long last Rothko’s mouse gains a lion’s voice—in putting his master in his place.
Both actors ace the clever word play Logan has given them (a sequence in which the duo parry metaphors about the color red is one of the play’s most exhilarating), and I guarantee you you’ll be recalling for months to come the older-younger duo’s heart-pounding scene of physical collaboration.
South Coast Rep gives Red the kind of design any Broadway theater would envy, beginning with Ralph Funicello’s expansive, minutely detailed artist’s studio set, gorgeously lit by Tom Ruzika, who outdoes himself in the play’s final fade to red. Sound designer Cricket S. Myers backs the action with carefully selected pieces of classical music. Costume designer Fred Kinney has created outfits for Rothko and Ken that match both character and era.
Jackie S. Hill is production manager. Kathryn Davies is stage manager and Sue Karutz is assistant stage manager. John Glore is dramaturg. Casting is by Joanne DeNaut, CSA.
A fascinating, compelling warts-and-all look at one of the 20th Century’s painting world’s supreme talents, John Logan’s Red shines fiery bright, the life of a great artist making for great art at South Coast Rep.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
February 2, 2016
Photos: Debora Robinson and Ben Horak/SCR