RED at the Golden

First preview! And finally one that is worth my while, because I like talky plays and especially talky plays about artists and art. Their influences and motivations fascinate me, far more than the art itself, which of course is a problem I am trying to rectify.

Here it's the late 1950s and Mark Rothko has been commissioned to paint a series of murals to hang in the new Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building in New York City. This is an artist who doesn't much care for the way his audience (not only the buyers, sellers, museums, and galleries but presumably right up to and including the walls) interprets either his art or his artistry, and Things Do Not Go Well. (That he accepted the commission as a sort of fuck you to rich folk is not a revelation, and that he would eventually die after slitting his wrists and overdosing on anti-depressants is heavily prefigured.) He hires a young assistant to mix the paints, stretch the canvases, pick up the take-out, and listen to him talk. And then he talks.

What struck me most about the play though wasn't all the talking (it was pretty talky), but two images—both dynamic, in a play about art. Is that odd? Or perfectly natural, I suppose, since by his own accounts Rothko's huge multiform paintings are alive on the canvas.

The first is a two- or three-minute wordless interlude where the two actors—Alfred Molina playing Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as his assistant Ken—cover a newly stretched canvas with a dark base of red paint. Ken starts at the bottom and Rothko the top and they perform a sort of ballet with their bodies and brushes, crisscrossing back and forth, working silently, intently, both at odds and together, and at the end, there is suddenly this made thing, and when they turn back to the audience, you see both of their faces—their whole heads, really, the whole front of them—are washed the color of blood. Which is both unexpected and not, a shock to my system but to them just another day at the office.

The second is when Rothko—portrayed here as a beast of a man, a walking tantrum with the power and ego of both Apollo and Dionysus, who because he's Alfred Molina you still have to like—reaches out, in a gesture of respect, accord, communion, and lays one hand gently, briefly, on Ken's chest, in exactly the same way we've seen him touch the canvas as he studies his own paintings, these paintings he loves so much that to part with any one of them feels like an abandonment.