“Red”

Susan Granger’s review of “Red” (Westport Country Playhouse: May, 2016)

The Westport Country Playhouse opened the season with two Tony Award-winning plays – “Red” and “Art” – staged in repertory. Intellectually provocative, they’re about creating and owning paintings.

Set in 1958 in a studio in New York City, John Logan’s “Red” delves into the relationship between acclaimed artist Mark Rothko (Stephen Rowe) and his eager, young assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews).

Rothko’s potent first words are “What do you see?” as Ken stares out into the darkened theater, transforming the fourth wall into a canvas worth analyzing.

As mentor, Rothko pontificates, often utilizing the imagery and language of academia. He’s part of a generation of “serious” artists who rebelled against cubism, replacing it with abstract expressionism.

Commissioned by architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, Rothko is working on a series of murals intended to adorn the Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building. According to patron Nelson Rockefeller, their intent was to match fine cuisine with magnificent art.

Each painting has a deep reddish-brown base color over which Rothko places a window-like form in red or black or orange. Rothko’s color palate suggests dried blood, evoking in Ken painful childhood memories of the grisly murder of his parents.

Significantly, Rothko was so enraged by the idea of his murals hanging in a trendy restaurant that he cancelled his contract. Nine were donated to London’s Tate Gallery and seven went to the Kawamura Memorial DIC Museum of art. Others are on display in The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. and The Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas.

Written by John Logan and directed by Mark Lamos, it’s a verbal sparring match between mentor and acolyte with Stephen Rowe (who understudied Alfred Molina on Broadway) propelling the play and Patrick Andrews effective as his foil – although I would have loved to see Tony-winner Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl”) in this role.

According to Artistic Director Mark Lamos, “Red” and “Art” have never been programmed together before and, while each stands on its own, seeing them together creates a new appreciation not only for the artist’s dilemma but also the spectator’s. I just wish they were more emotionally engaging.

For a schedule and ticket information, go to www.westportplayhouse.org or call 203-227-4177.