Red, by John Logan, is a monument to ego. Not merely the titanic, tempestuous ego of artist Mark Rothko (1903-70), played by Alfred Molina with the sulky, capricious fervor of a bloodthirsty despot, but what those who couldn’t fathom themselves as creative individuals imagine to be the tortured psyche of The Artist.
In this sense, Logan — but more than him, the charismatic Molina — delivers: There’s Rothko, self-absorbed genius; Rothko, maniacal visionary; Rothko, swaggering autodidact; Rothko, the brutalizing, inadvertent tutor to his assistant, a fictitious aspiring artist named Ken. If watching Molina’s Rothko is like staring into the mouth of a wounded lion, watching Redmayne’s Ken is like watching a fox discover his cunning and patience.
Logan clearly proposes Ken as a device through which to continuously flip Rothko’s on-switch. The result finds Molina spewing one blazing disquisition on art, politics and the nature of mankind after another; these volcanic eruptions, too, fit the model of the anguished artist that audiences think they hunger for. The magic here is not so much found, then, in Logan’s script, with its endless whirlpool of words and ideas, but in Molina’s exacting, thrilling choices. Molina’s Rothko is bluster, bitterness, jealousy and perfectionism wrapped in a diaphanous shroud of fear.
Red finds the artist fulfilling a commission to create a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the then-new Seagram’s building, which is why he hired Ken. But he doesn’t need an assistant — a fact he mercilessly lords over the poor young man; he wants a rival, a check, a slave, a punching bag. Rothko wants a mirror by which he can see his ego, a toxic brew of oil and flamethrowers that, he hopes, will spark the creation of the murals. Problem is, the commission is not about the work for Rothko, either, much as Logan has the man blathering otherwise. In fact, as a quote famously attributed to Rothko, his goal was to “ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room.” What today are known as the Seagram Murals — dusky, multilayered brood-fests of “enveloping” color — would have indeed given many people indigestion (or food for thought) had they ever been hung. But Rothko dined at the Four Seasons before remitting his deliverables, and afterward returned the money.
Presenting Rothko the caustic, contradictory conundrum is not Logan’s only challenge; applying the artist’s back story to the scenario at hand is equally key. Born Marcus Rothkowitz, he emigrated with his family from Cossack-terrorized Russia while still a boy; his father died shortly after arrival in Portland, Oregon. The young artist survived the Great Depression and a stint at Yale — no doubt he’d have classified each experience as one of fiscal and emotional poverty. Like so many other artists, he endured long stretches of critical ambivalence and outright peer rejection; maybe most debilitating of all was Rothko’s interminable aesthetic drift, something that didn’t sort itself out until after World War II. He was in his 40s at that point, relatively old for a groundbreaking artist, almost impossible to imagine today. Once he had hitched himself like a barnacle to the emerging style of abstract expressionism (a term he never ascribed to), the artist rode the wave to respect, wealth and acclaim.
Like a barnacle, though, Rothko also couldn’t let go; there is a wonderful scene in which he rails against the Pop Art movement that was already displacing him as the high priest of contemporary aesthetics, and which Ken deftly uses to gain an edge over his abusing employer. Saddled with depression and fermented by alcohol, generational movement only intensified his anger — increasingly he viewed the Seagram Murals as his last, best opportunity to stick his finger in the establishment’s eye. Red, then, is not so much a play about a man biting the hand that feeds him as the about the type of ego that would also spit it out.
Red is also a study in the scar that forms when you pick and pick at scabs. Problem is, when Logan focuses too much in the direction of pure emotion — something antithetical to Rothko’s damaged soul — even the heroic performances of Molina and Redmayne are hard-pressed to overcome it. Consider the revelation that Ken’s parents were murdered, for example. This is a red herring, pardon the pun, if ever there was one. True, it generates gasps from the audience, but it’s a false moment — a needless and tactless attempt to shed light on a character meant only to be shade.
Neither the classical music on the record player, nor Ken’s ever-earnest willingness to endure tirades, nor liberal swigs of scotch can assuage the fact that the Rothko of Red loathes his own genius even as he is fully enamored of it. Michael Grandage’s direction emphasizes this curious internal schism with careful blocking: rarely is the sight of a man washing his face or his arms so fraught with subtext, so shot through with hostility and lamentation. Grandage doesn’t give in to Logan’s melodramatic tendencies, he invites Molina and Redmayne to limn the meaning of personal and artistic grief. For Molina, it is demonstrated through the projection of power and arrogance. For Redmayne, with his slightly nasal, pinched Midwestern accent, his essential Mayberry-ness, it is shown through red-faced (Red-faced?) triumph, as Ken finally sees Rothko as a byproduct of Rothko’s own glory; that observers, not artists, ultimately arbitrate art.
Grandage’s opening blocking puts the audience on notice: Red hearts ego, and all will be subsumed to it. Molina is on stage, back to the audience, staring at a mural. He stares and stares, daring the audience to stare at the painting instead of him. Rising, taking tentative steps toward the painting, he brushes his hand against it like nurse closing the eyes of a corpse.