Red, the play starring Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko, is bombastic stuff. Molina, bald and bespectacled, stalks around the stage like an angry drill sergeant. When he barks out profundities about the tragic nature of art, he might as well be ordering the privates to clean the latrines. Actually, there is only one private around. That’s the fresh-faced actor Eddie Redmayne, who plays Rothko’s studio assistant, Ken. And for much of the interminable 90 minutes Red takes to go nowhere in particular, Ken cheerfully swallows whatever Rothko dishes out. After all, he’s lucky enough to be in basic training with the Great American Artist. Ken may not be required to tuck in the blanket on his cot just so, but there will be hell to pay if he doesn’t stretch Rothko’s canvases exactly right. And of course he can be sure that the resident middle-aged genius will be plenty pissed off if Ken forgets to replenish the studio’s supply of coffee, cigarettes, and booze. Ken keeps to the straight and narrow. He aims to please. Until, that is, he decides he will no longer aim to please. His moment of truth, which takes place off stage, involves discovering the work of Warhol and Lichtenstein and realizing that Rothko is old hat. Red ends with Ken turning into the rebel with Pop Art as his cause. At which point Rothko dismisses him, but with an honorable discharge. The angry Ab Ex drill sergeant turns out to have a heart, after all.
The audiences who are packing the Golden Theater, where Red has arrived from the Donmar Warehouse in London, love this saccharine stuff. People succumb to Rothko’s boldface pronouncements, perhaps because they can see that all this celebrity art worker wisdom comes with learned footnotes. The Abstract Expressionists really did talk about Nietzsche and the Birth of Tragedy and the Apollonian and Dionysian principles (although it’s never been clear how much of it they actually read). And it is true that Rothko and his friends were furious when Sidney Janis, the dealer who was their meal ticket, began showing Pop Art. But John Logan, the writer responsible for stitching some perfectly creditable bits and pieces of Abstract Expressionist history together into a simulacrum of a play, is unable to shape these factoids into the baroque monologues that might bring Rothko’s melancholy and grandiose personality to life. Molina—who was so remarkable in the role of the overbearing yet loving father in the recent movie, An Education—doesn’t really have much to work with here. And so the audience fills in the blanks. Although Rothko is still alive when Red finally grinds to a halt, theatergoers are all too well aware that the man committed suicide in his studio, which is the setting for the play, and you can almost feel them waiting for the blood to start spurting from his wrists. Instead, there is lots of red paint splattered around the stage. At one point, Ken discovers Rothko asleep over a bucket full of that blood red goop. We have already learned that poor Ken is an orphan, who as a boy discovered his mother and father murdered in their bedroom. Ken, you see, is a young man who is looking for a father. But Rothko, spouting dicta about the tragedy of art, is not exactly dad material. Or is he?
I have rarely been as uncomfortable in a theater as I was at Red. It was not the inconclusive face-off between a damaged son and a domineering dad that had me squirming in my seat. I can tolerate a play that amounts to little more than a series of questions, all pretty much left hanging. (Who will reach out? Who will respond? Will hurt bring about healing?) What turns this stupid event into a major affront is an act of theatrical aggression. John Logan uses the heroic drama of mid-twentieth-century American painting as a high falutin’ cover for what amounts to a series of utterly predictable skits about the never-ending warfare between fathers and sons. Strip away the hallowed names that are tossed around in the play—Michelangelo, Picasso, Matisse, Pollock, de Kooning—and what you are left with is a tough-old-guy cliché and a tender-young-guy cliché, a couple of moldy scarecrows that Broadway producers have been trotting around for generations. Whoever Mark Rothko was and whatever his limitations as an artist and as a man, he does not deserve to be recycled as a swaggering bully in need of sensitivity training. At Red, art becomes kitsch right before your eyes.
Jed Perl is the art critic of The New Republic.