John Logan’s “Red,” in all its glorious self-importance and suffocating academia, is a play about a very simple question: What do you see?
The question is about a painting by the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, one made, ostensibly, of just the color red. Except there is no “just red,” and there is no red – red is what you think it is, how it makes you feel, what you see it as, what you want to see.
Randy Kramer directs an astute production of Logan’s play at the 710 Main Theatre, a co-production with MusicalFare on the former Studio Arena Theatre stage. It delves into the depths of Rothko’s tortured selves, the swirling contradictions that made him one of contemporary art’s most tortured and torturous handlers. Logan’s words service this existential crisis well enough, but this company makes it appropriately scream.
That this feels like a Studio Arena production – from its detailed set decoration, to the necessary understanding of its thrust, to a lighting grid that any designer would love to have in his or her palette – is to Kramer and his team’s credit.
This is a small play about the end of a world. Rothko, played by the marvelously inward Paul Todaro, is not an easy man, bitter about this commission and what it means for his credibility. The red painting – more accurately, a series of red paintings, totaling some 500 to 600 square feet in size, commissioned in 1958 for the Four Seasons restaurant in midtown Manhattan – is the focus of our attention. Yet we never see it.
We open on Todaro, his gut and buttons bulging from one kind of exhaustion or another, classical music orchestrating the score of his private moment, as his head slowly cocks to one side. It is the way he looks at his painting, the way we often look at something we don’t understand, that opens our door to his riddled opinion.
Enter Ken, a young artist hired by Rothko to assist in the commission. Ken, expectedly, is the opposite of Rothko – student and teacher, son and father, open and closed. Their oppositions feel immediately dramatic, but this is a play after all, the misanthropy in which is about as dark as it humanly gets. They extract soulful things from each other, leading to a triumphant enough finale that feels right at home in a story this predictable.
This is not a small script problem, though honestly, I’m not sure what would help to divert it away from its own obviousness. We know what we’re supposed to feel about this relationship from the get-go, and unlike its own conversation about the uncharted depths of a primary color, we’re never led productively astray.
Todaro is perfectly built for his role. He is dependably prepared, peeling layers like a surgeon, and yet he is Shakespearean, grounding it all in a sense of doom and mood. Todaro takes Rothko to places that shallower actors might only think they were going. Therefore, his rage is ascendant and his doom is silencing. Never a dull moment.
As Ken, P.J. Tighe also is ideal for his role as prodigious student. Tighe looks the part, and acts the very best of out of it that he can; this much is clear from merely watching him listen. But he misses a proportional, or at the very least complementary, buildup to his partner’s trajectory.
Kramer’s ability to mold, shape and ground this dramatic script into something that’s both musical and silent is beautiful. That he normally directs musicals and not straight plays is not the matter here. Drama is drama, and action is action. But without the nesting of those elements in the, frankly, distracting nature of song and dance, Kramer relishes the chance to create silent, still, contemplative scenes. It is to his credit that this not nearly finished conversation about feeling can begin.
Where: 710 Main Theatre, 710 Main St.
When: Through March 30
Tickets: $40 general, $16.50 students