Quote of the Week: Rothko’s Red Glare

No one told me Red was a comedy. I caught the play-about-Mark-Rothko yesterday on Broadway, the matinee performance. It’s a two-person show. There’s Rothko, performed with late-1950s urbanite-Manhattan sturm’n’drang self-hating self-aggrandizing ebullience by the irrepressible Alfred Molina, and there is his studio assistant, Ken, played by Eddie Redmayne with just the right amount of ingenue that makes it clear he’s as much an apprentice to Molina as his character is to Rothko. (Redmayne was born in 1982, the year after Molina’s mug made such an impression worldwide in the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark.)

The New York Times review of Red (nytimes.com) by Ben Brantley noted how Molina “makes us feel the necessity of an overweening, humorless vanity and — to use a word that for Rothko denotes a cardinal virtue — seriousness.” And Michael Billington, reviewing (at guardian.co.uk) the work’s earlier incarnation in London, praised it as “a totally convincing portrait of the artist as a working visionary.”

But for a show about one of the great stoics of abstract expressionism, Red, which was written by John Logan, sure seemed packed with punchlines, as Rothko and Ken went at it. Certainly there was bloodsport to their intellectual and emotional sparring, but the gravitas seemed repeatedly undercut by Seinfeldian laugh-lines. The audience at the performance I attended regularly guffawed, on cue — me as much as anyone else. I laughed along, but with each laugh felt more and more distant from the paintings that are the subject of the show. With each laugh, the character of Rothko became more and more a caricature of the sullen-comic city-dwelling rootless cosmopolitan of Jewish descent (yeah, guilty myself at times). Even one of Rothko’s great pronouncements was treated as a rim-shot moment:

“Silence is so accurate.”

The line was employed in Red as a mock-appreciation by Rothko when Ken — who grows more talkative as their relationship unfolds — for a moment neglects to speak. Let’s just say there was a pause between “so” and “accurate” that owed a lot more to Mel Brooks than it did to Sam Shepherd.

The play centers on Rothko’s creation of works for the New York restaurant the Four Seasons, a commission he completed and then withdrew from. While painting the pieces, he repeatedly employs the word “chapel,” a knowing nod to the Rothko Chapel — the Houston, Texas, mini-museum dedicated to his paintings, and for which composer Morton Feldman wrote one of his best-loved works.

Given Rothko’s association with Feldman and his penchant for playing classical music in his studio, it’s worth noting the use of music and sound in Red. Both were accomplished by Adam Cork, whose score had an ambient brightness that seemed oddly contemporary (i.e., early-21st-century) for a play that otherwise extended significant effort to duplicate gritty late-1950s Manhattan. In that respect, Cork’s glistening drones, augmented by pointillism that at times suggested György Ligeti, provided regular comfort along the lines of the show’s insistent humor — a respite from Rothko’s unfathomably righteous anger.

But Cork’s score wasn’t entirely distracting. One thing he really excelled at was when his score combined with the music that Rothko (and, later, Ken) played on the in-studio turntable — Cork’s electronic tones alternately supplanted the classical music favored by Rothko (as well as one dramatically truncated Chet Baker tune initiated by Ken), and provided a lush base from which it emerged. There was a particularly remarkable instant late in Red when the score, and Ken’s hammering together of a canvas, and the on-set music all combined for a sudden burst of perfect timing.

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