Red is a meditation on looking and listening. In John Logan's play, the painter Mark Rothko has a lot to say about looking, and he has someone to listen in the form of his studio assistant, Ken.
The Dorset Theatre Festival production begins with the act of looking and, for Tim Daly's Rothko, it's no passive gaping but a nearly corrosive attention to the surface and meaning of a painting in progress. Motionless, head tipped to the side, Daly opens the play gazing with hungry intensity at the fourth wall. At us.
But he's looking at the painting he's working on. And in that powerful, consuming stare, Daly makes clear his character's need to make art of the highest seriousness. Logan anchors his story in this drive to make art, and he gives Rothko a certain degree of pretentiousness and ego. Without vanity, he couldn't weather critics and sustain himself through the wrenching process of completing a painting.
When Ken enters the studio, Rothko asks him, "What do you see?" And so begins an unruly Socratic dialog between the monomaniacal artist and an assistant who progresses from naïve to knowing over the course of the play. As Ken grows in confidence, Red itself matures. If Rothko spits out pronouncements in the early scenes, toward the end he begins to investigate his beliefs as Ken challenges them.
Set in his Bowery studio, the play covers two years of Rothko's life, in the late 1950s. It's accurate about most events and borrows lines directly from Rothko's writing and interviews, but it's the work of a playwright's imagination. Rothko has received a large commission for a series of paintings to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan's newest expression of modernism, the Seagram Building. The money is important to him, but so is showing his work in a space that groundbreaking architects Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed. Logan explores how commercial reward can compromise art, though the story encompasses other themes as well.
Red portrays a master and apprentice, with overtones of a father and a son, while telling the story of an artist's career from upstart overthrowing a prior artistic movement to prominent master to watching new artists usurp his place. In this sense, it's a story of growth and mortality. But Rothko's preoccupations extend to the balance between romanticism and intellect, and much of the dialog between Ken and Rothko investigates this idea, using Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy as fuel. Logan always grounds the intellectual observations in the powerful appetites of the two characters. They're seeking meaning, not with detached, academic musing but with a passion to understand the world. Logan mirrors the triumph of abstract expressionism itself by demonstrating that the abstract can be invested with emotion, and the play is a visceral, exhilarating experience.
Nonetheless, Red begins with, arguably, too much deft wordplay in the service of brilliant rants about the art world, the nature of creation and how the artist must honor influences from art to music to philosophy. Daly handles the physical energy wonderfully, but these early near-monologues come off as words he is speaking, not ideas he's having. He rushes, obscuring the intelligence it takes to have the ideas in the service of getting them said, and depriving us of the chance to reflect on them.
When the play's structure shifts to more interactions between the characters, Daly is able to shine as a character wrestling with his work. "I am here to stop your heart, you understand that?" Rothko tells Ken. "I am not here to make pretty pictures!" Daly lets all that wears on Rothko show up as weight on his body, from a droop as he sits to a voice heavy with care and purged of his normal bright and eager tones. Daly, an Emmy winner known for his roles on "Wings," "The Sopranos" and "Private Practice," doesn't resemble Rothko physically, but he reveals the essence of the character. Daly slumps and slouches but gives Rothko's words soaring power,
As Ken, Charles Socarides has a frank curiosity onstage that draws the viewer in as his ally. His rail-thin body is coiled with energy as he goes about his work making stretchers, running errands and cleaning brushes, but above all adroitly sidestepping the verbal blows that Rothko rains down from time to time. As artist and assistant settle into efficient camaraderie, Socarides quietly shows his character growing stronger and stronger. Ken opens one scene in a phone conversation fretting about his boss' opinion, and another with the smooth confidence to work on his own, building a stretcher after putting Chet Baker on the stereo to replace Rothko's beloved Mozart. Throughout, Socarides is an able foil for Daly.
Scenic designer John McDermott conveys the play's tension between lofty intentions and gritty practicalities with a set packed with the clutter of a painter's priestly tools in a cathedral-like studio. Three facsimile paintings hang on the walls, but they are disturbingly unlike the actual Seagram murals, which can now be seen at the Tate Modern in London. The shapes are reproduced accurately enough, but the color is coarse, without Rothko's crepuscular mist overlaying it, and the brushwork lacks the nuance of his edges.
Still, the facsimiles ought to have more effect on us than they do. They prove a point Rothko makes in the play: "To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience. You paint the larger picture, you are in it." Because the facsimiles hang high on the wall, they are small and distant to the theater audience. We can't immerse ourselves, and the paintings lack the emotional and intellectual power of the originals. Rothko's work is about proportion and the viewer's human scale beside it.
Theater is all about facsimile. The trick isn't recreating something; it's creating something strong enough to produce the reactions that reality can. Though the paintings on stage lack the presence and power of Rothko's art, the play has all the emotional strength necessary to show us, through one man's life, central problems we all confront. In Red, we witness the heightened truth of theater, not life. But it reaches us, perhaps transforms us, because art operates, as these characters say, on both intellect and emotion.
Dorset's production is impeccable, with nuanced lighting by Michael Giannitti and note-perfect costumes by Charles Schoonmaker. Director Adrienne Campbell-Holt smoothly raises and releases tension in her blocking choices and establishes the foundation for a tight, two-person performance.
The play tells a true-ish story about the Seagram commission with some apocryphal details. Sticklers for accuracy might claim that a true story means more because there's proof it can happen, while fiction doesn't have to follow the rules. But when fiction works, it does follow rules — the deepest rules of human experience. In a world that sets great store by irony, it takes courage for Logan to give his characters pronouncements about art and life. But the emotional current in Red justifies them with eloquence that transcends words.
Red by John Logan, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, produced by Dorset Theatre Festival. Through July 6, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., Wednesdays and Sundays, 3 p.m. $20-59. Info, 867-2223. dorsettheatrefestival.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "Seeing Red"
Alex Brown writes fiction (Finding Losses, 2014) and nonfiction (In Print: Text and Type, 1989) and earns a living as a consultant to magazine publishers. She studied filmmaking at NYU and has directed a dozen plays in central Vermont.