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Sunday, 11 April 2010 16:34

Broadway Review: RED

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Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in Red
Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in Red
Photo: Johan Persson
Red, the new play by John Logan is without a doubt the best new play of the season. It also offers two of the best performances of the season by veteran actor Alfred Molina and newcomer Eddie Redmayne. Redmayne recently received London's Olivier Award for his work in this role. Red is a window into the mind of a complex and angry man in the latter part of his life, artist Mark Rothko. This play is cerebral and demands an intense willingness to employ one's listening skills. Don't let that scare you off, your efforts will be rewarded as you have the privilege of going inside the mind of this creative genius. The night I attended Red the audience was completely mesmerized by the performances before them. The intense focus on the audience's part was palpable.

Mark Rothko, an abstract impressionist (a title he didn't particularly care for) was commissioned in the late 1950's by architects Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson to create murals for a new restaurant, The Four Seasons at the Seagrams building they were building for the large beverage corporation on Park Avenue.

As you enter the theatre you are greeted with a large gaping proscenium. The house curtain has been removed and we can see high into the fly space. The Golden Theatre is a cold house to begin with, with its battle-ship gray walls and narrow width. There are florescent lighting fixtures suspended over the stage. They hang inside a large industrial space with paint splattered on the floor and large paintings up center, stage left and stage right. Sitting in an Adirondack chair facing upstage you see the bald head of the artist; he sits staring at the painting up center the entire time the audience is getting seated. There is no pre-show announcement. The house lights dim and the play begins. Rothko rises to view and stare at another of his paintings positioned on the fourth wall so that Molina is facing the audience. Behind him enters Ken, a candidate to be Rothko's new assistant.
Alfred Molina in Red
Alfred Molina in Red
Photo: Johan Persson

Before any words are even exchanged, Rothko grills the young man about what he sees in the painting, imploring him to "let it pulsate, let it work on you." When asked what he sees in the painting Ken responds "red." This response doesn't satiate Rothko's appetite for either an intellectual response or even acceptance as he queries the boy further "Yes, but do you like it." Without even getting a chance to answer Rothko departs on a diatribe on the current state of pop-culture. "Where's the discernment, where's the arbitration that separates what I like from what I respect." This very same question could be asked of today's pop culture and even of some of what is presented on Broadway in the name of theatre.

Rothko hires Ken to help with canvas stretching, painting base color, moving paintings, etc. During the course of the play (a period of two years) we watch as the student progresses from student to teacher. The two have a volatile back-and-forth relationship expressed brilliantly in a canvas painting pas de deux of dizzying proportions, after which each actor faces downstage looking like they have been to battle, blood colored paint covering their faces. It appears to have been a draw for the time being, each carrying their own weight in painting the large eight foot canvas.

Redmayne's Ken starts the play wet behind the ears. The first time that Rothko yells at him we see a visceral physical reaction as though he has been punched in the stomach. Early on Rothko tells Ken "I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher - I'm your employer." Ironically, somewhere around the 60-minute mark of this 90-minute play, that quote could just as easily have been switched up between employer and employee and be reapplied by merely switching the last word.

Ultimately, after visiting the restaurant, Rothko calls Philip Johnson to tell him that "anyone who eats that kind of food, for that kind of money, in that kind of joint, will never look at a painting of mine." In the end too, the student learns all he can from the master until the master must push him out of the proverbial nest. Rothko knows all too well that you have to experience life to be an artist and he fires Ken telling him "You're life is out there."

Both of these men will most certainly get a Tony Award nomination for their performances. As Rothko, Molina brings an intensity and an ability to dig deep to create the nuances of this character. Redmayne's Ken shows a range of growth and emotion as he goes from shy pupil to the man that confronts Rothko. Both of these men deliver in spades.

Red director and Donmar Warehouse artistic director Michael Grandage must be congratulated for helping these two gentlemen cultivate these finely crafted performances. His direction is seamless and unobtrusive.

Red originated at Covent Garden's Donmar Warehouse, a hot-bed of creativity that has led the organization to 14 Tony Awards with such Broadway productions as Cabaret, Nine, Frost/Nixon, Jude Law's Hamlet and Take Me Out. I'm happy to say that they have delivered the goods once again with a smart piece of theatre that I implore you not to miss.

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View full production credits at the Internet Broadway Database.

Last modified on Friday, 18 June 2010 11:38