Red. The title is the key to John Logan’s tight, intense play now in production at South Coast Repertory. The actual, generic color red serves as the basso ostinato of the ninety-minute wonder, but red is also the metaphor for so much more – emotions, politics, intensity. Quoth Bill Blass, “When in doubt, wear red.”
The play, smartly directed by David Emmes, represents two years in the life of abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (superb Mark Harelik). The artist strives to complete a commission given to him by architect Philip Johnson that is destined to adorn the walls of the Four Seasons Restaurant in the iconic Seagram Building in Manhattan. Set in the artist’s studio, a converted gymnasium, Rothko is joined by a fictional young assistant. The striving, budding artist Ken (excellent Paul David Story) labors from nine to five, “just like bankers,” to serve the volatile artist. Rothko, powerful and remote, keeps himself away from any real kind of emotional rapport with Ken, all the while spewing his didactic opinions on art, literature, music, philosophy and more.
As played by Mr. Harelik, Rothko is a fascinating, albeit unlikeable, character. And yet he is compelling in much the same way as Timothy Spall is in his representation of another artist, J. M. W. Turner, in Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner. As he expounds on art and literature, Rothko creates vivid impressions of the works of others. He characterizes his rival Jackson Pollock as a drunk who committed suicide in an Oldsmobile convertible. He shares his views on the great works of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Matisse and others so vividly that one wants to get to the computer fast and see for oneself.
As is always the case at South Coast Rep, the physical production is inspired. Ralph Funicello’s scenic design captures completely the cluttered milieu of an artist. The nuanced lighting by Tom Ruzika compliments the set and directs focus. The soundscape of Cricket Myers is terrific, adding tension to the scene changes. Fred Kinney’s costumes are period perfect, reinforcing the notion of the late 1950s.
Red is enthralling. The opening weekend audience gave the performance a well-deserved standing ovation. Red runs through February 21 in South Coast Rep’s Segerstrom Stage.