A Taut Canvas Colored ‘Red’

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Rare is the person who has not stared at a check for some job and wondered if it was worth the price. Such was the dilemma of artist Mark Rothko at the height of his fame, when he accepted a $35,000 commission in 1958 to paint 600 square feet of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan.

“Red,” the two-character bio-drama by John Logan now staging at Guild Hall in East Hampton, captures Rothko during the creation of these murals, as he struggles, sputters and, finally, flings paint on his canvases—all the while fulminating about the purpose of art, the tragedy of life, the treachery of critics, the siren of fame and fortune, and the reputations of his contemporaries at his young and green assistant, Ken.

The dialogue begins with a question—“What do you see?”—a demand that Rothko, portrayed by Victor Slezak, really does not want an answer to. When Ken struggles to respond, Rothko gruffly cuts him off, “By what right do you speak? Who in the f–k are you? What have you done?” Ken, acted by Christian Scheider, and the audience, get some idea of what they are in for.

To understand painting—and Rothko’s abstract art, specifically—the artist insists, one must understand the history of Western painting, the critical tension between Apollo and Dionysius, not to mention Nietzsche, Freud, Jung and Shakespeare, to name but a smattering of intellectual icons he bombastically throws out at the initially amazed and overwhelmed Ken. His job is to listen, get coffee, mix paint, clean up, stretch canvas and put down a first base coating, upon which the master will build a work of art. Painting he will not learn—at least not here.

Does he hope for more from the master? Ultimately, Ken doesn’t even have an opening to show Rothko one of his own works. You’re glad he doesn’t, for you can anticipate his reaction, and Ken’s had enough of the Great One’s eviscerating rants. The play lags somewhat when Ken reveals a secret of his past, simply because the whole episode feels unnecessary and, dare I say it, staged.

Fortunately, the drama is swiftly brought back to the core tension between the two men and their argument over what is art—both today and what it will become.

The play, which won a staggering six Tony Awards in 2010 after a limited run on Broadway, really opens up—as does Ken—when a year or so later into their relationship, he challenges Rothko and rips into him for his ready dismissal of the artists who are coming after him. Pop art is the next new thing.

Mr. Slezak aptly captures the gloom and doom—as well as the cerebral pomposity—of Rothko the Great, but doesn’t inhabit the role so completely that you forget he is an actor portraying a painter. Yet Mr. Slezak’s pretty damn good throwing out lines like this: “Most of painting is thinking. Ten percent is putting paint on canvas. The rest is waiting.” Of selling a painting, he says it is like “sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades.” Of critics, he says, “They do not have the heart, nor the patience, nor the capacity to think, to understand, because they are not human beings.” Let us assume he was referring to Clement Greenberg, who could make an artist with a single good review, and who never “got” Rothko and his color-field paintings.

Ken, played by Mr. Scheider—an East End native and son of the late actor Roy Scheider—is that callow, unformed youth in the first scene, and it’s thrilling to watch as he finds his own voice and stature near the end. He nimbly captures the sense of becoming at the moment of our adult awakening. You want to cheer and say, “Attaboy!”

The writing is brilliant, intense and showy. Under the dynamic direction of Stephen Hamilton, this production retains all of its moody depth, as well as flashy intellectual timbre. Booze is drunk, cigarettes smoked, Mozart heard and psyche plunged. Knowing that Mr. Logan has written such pop films as “The Aviator,” “The Last Samurai” and “Gladiator,” one might speculate if he is reaching into his own self-awareness for the question at the heart of the drama.

Brian Leaver’s set is simple and as messy as any artist’s studio. Visual trickery, with lighting by Sebastian Paczynski, during one scene where Ken and Rothko cover a canvas with red paint is particularly effective. With the limited seating, the feeling is intimate—you are in that studio like the proverbial fly on the wall.

Having eaten in the Four Seasons numerous times in the late 1960s and ’70, at the height of its cachet, I watched the drama last Wednesday night wondering what happened to the murals, for surely they never ended up there.

The answer comes near the end. Rothko calls architect Philip Johnson, who designed the Seagram Building that would house the restaurant, and says he will return the money—the equivalent of $275,000 today. A mere dining hall for the rich and famous is no place for his somber, spiritual art. He wants a chapel, a temple, a place of contemplation.

Later, Rothko donated nine of the paintings originally done for the Four Seasons to the Tate Modern in London, which agreed to house them in a permanent and exclusive room. They arrived from Manhattan the morning of his suicide—February 25, 1970.

Rothko, born Marcus Rothkowitz in Latvia, had cut deep gashes into his arms at his elbows. When he was found, he lay in a pool of his own blood measuring 6 feet by 8 feet—the size, and color, of one of his monumental works.

“Red” foretells that fateful ending as it peers into the mind of one of the luminaries of abstract expressionism. By the time he died at the age of 67, Rothko had become an icon himself. Now I’m primed to see his paintings again.

“Red” runs Wednesdays through Sundays, through June 8, at 8 p.m. in the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall in East Hampton. Reservations are strongly suggested, as general admission seating is limited to 75. Tickets are $35 and $10 for students age 21 and under. For more information, call 324-4050 or visit guildhall.org.

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