Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon, 1958, mixed media on canvas, 105x150 inches
Depart with me from the streets of Chelsea. Come with me uptown, up to 45th Street, to the John Golden Theater, and let's talk about "Red", the play by John Logan starring Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as Ken. (For the performance I attended, Ken was played by Gabriel Ebert.) It's the kind of show I imagine painters would be interested in, because painters, I think, are curious to see how other people explore and explain what they do in the studio all day.
You can read a more detailed synopsis of the play elsewhere, but I'll sketch it out for you here: "Red" begins as Ken arrives for his first day of work as Mark Rothko's studio assistant. We follow the pair of them across two years or so as Rothko works on his famous Seagram murals, a commission for the newly-built Seagram Building's restaurant, the Four Seasons.
If you can guess from this brief sketch that Ken will start out hopeful and enamored of Rothko but find him to be overbearing, narcissistic, egotistical, and bombastic; that Rothko will refuse to be the boy's mentor but will grudgingly grow into that role; that Ken will slowly reveal more strength than he at first showed and eventually will confront his mentor; near the end of the play the grand climax will be when Rothko breaks down and shows himself to be flawed, in pain, and merely human after all; and finally the mentor will release his charge back into the world, changed and grown; well, then, that's a damned shame, isn't it?
I enjoyed the play -- and my wife loved it -- but I have to admit to being a little disappointed in the obvious narrative arc. Throughout the play the character of Rothko demands of Ken that he go deeper, think harder, stop answering with the easy answer and instead dig for the truth. And yet playwright Logan cages this Rothko within a creaky old mentor-apprentice dynamic telegraphed from the very first words of the play. If only Logan had listened to the lines he was giving Rothko. Roger Ebert wrote of a film starring Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler, "If you could pay their salaries, wouldn't you try to put them in a better movie?" I felt similarly here: If you could afford Alfred Molina's salary, wouldn't you want to put him in a better play? Especially if you had Rothko's words to give him?
That said, Alfred Molina does a great job. A good portion of his lines are taken from the actual writings of Mark Rothko. While they may not represent the man as he truly was, they certainly reflect the man Rothko wanted to be, and Molina delivers that reflection powerfully. As played by him Rothko is ferociously intelligent, ambitious, funny, incisive, and altogether full of himself. And rightly so.
It's the character of Ken who gave me the most difficulty. The trouble is, throughout the play I found myself wishing Ken would go away. At one point Rothko bellows at Ken, "Who the fuck are you? Who gave you permission to speak?" And clearly we, the audience, are supposed to sympathize with Ken, to side with him against Rothko and his overwhelming ego. Except I was with Rothko: Who the fuck is this Ken? Why should he speak? Why should we listen to him? There are other points in the play where a similar dynamic arises and each time I found myself on Rothko's side. When Ken gets his big moment, the scene where he reveals his secret and it's supposed to be emotional and meaningful, all I was thinking was, who cares? Who gives a damn at all about this guy?
Because Ken is entirely fictional. Rothko was a real person but Ken is imaginary. And I really don't care about this imaginary person. I want to know about Rothko. Compared to the real words of Rothko -- the things he wrote and the things he's reported to have said to his actual assistants, like Jonathan Ahearn and Oliver Steindecker -- the travails of this fiction don't matter a bit. Three-quarters of the way through the play Ken says to Rothko something like, "You don't know anything about me. You don't know where I live or if I'm married or have a girlfriend or I'm queer or what!" Rothko shouts back at him that everything in ths studio is about him, Rothko -- and I thought, yes! That's how it should be! What has this Ken done that we should care about him?
It seems to me if you write a play using a real person as a character, then your play is trying to explore something about that real person. Or at the very least you should be using them to get at something deeper and more universal. I don't think Logan gets there. I almost would have preferred, I think, the hoary old Broadway one-man show with Molina playing Rothko in monologue. Painters and people who care about art are going to go to this show because of Rothko, because they know something about him, and the reason he's a draw, the reason they know about him, is because he painted some really great paintings. Rothko was a great artist. He had something other people do not. He was special. To take that specialness and tamp it down to mold it into a standard off the shelf plot is an insult. And it's one Rothko himself would have recognized.
But, again, the play is enjoyable due to the words of Rothko, which are fantastic, and the energy of the performances. My only final quibble comes as an oil painter: When Rothko ends up, at one point, in red paint up to his elbows -- symbolism alert! -- Ken helps him wash off the paint with a rag and a bucket of water. And that simply doesn't work. Soap and water won't wash away oil paint, all that'll do is smear it around. Trust me, I've tried.