As John Logan‘s fascinating Red makes emphatically clear—even in its current, flawed incarnation at Goodman Theatre—Mark Rothko was no Jackson Pollock. Wyoming-bred Pollock had rough good looks and bad-boy habits. In Manhattan, he was a downtown party guy, drinking to excess and carousing like mad. And his action painting? Athletic and sexy. In the famous studio photos, he’s got a canvas laid out on the floor and he’s bopping around it with a cigarette stuck in his mouth, dribbling and splashing paint, apparently according to the promptings of the muse. Like him or consider him as the end of Western civilization, Pollock was a star. When he killed himself he did it drunk, driving a great big Oldsmobile convertible.
Pollock’s fellow abstract expressionist Rothko, on the other hand, looked like a man with tenure. A cerebral, cranky, misanthropic Russian emigre in glasses, he developed a mature style that involved stark blocks of color, carefully considered in their dynamic relationships to one another. “We start every morning at nine and work until five,” Logan has him telling his new assistant, Ken, on their first day together. “Just like bankers.” When it came time for Rothko to commit suicide, he did it in a classic, conscientious, private manner, with a razor blade and pills.
The one thing Rothko had that Pollock might’ve envied was a singularly prestigious commission. In 1958, when he was 55 and Pollock was already two years dead, Rothko was asked to paint a series of murals for the chichi Four Seasons restaurant, located in what was then Manhattan’s newest and most important modernist landmark: the Seagram building, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. Red is set during the period when Rothko was neck-deep in his Seagram murals, and follows the artist’s intense give-and-take with Ken as they fight their way through them.
Rothko painted 40 canvases for the project—brooding works in reds, browns, and black—but he was also tormented by it. In an actual comment that turns up in Red, he said, “I hope to ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who eats” at the Four Seasons.
But his difficulties clearly went beyond class resentment. In Logan’s telling, Rothko is torn between his desire for the vindication the commission can provide—confirming his status as a lion of American painting just when pop art is mounting its challenge to abstract expressionism—and his profound awareness of the delicacy of the work. “You see how it is with them?” he asks Ken, referring to the canvases hung around his loft studio. “How vulnerable they are? . . . People think I’m controlling: controlling the light; controlling the height of the pictures. . . . It’s not controlling, it’s protecting. A picture lives by companionship. It dies by the same token. It’s a risky act to send it out into the world.”
Rothko tells Ken that the murals, working in concert, will create their own environment—”like a chapel . . . a place of communion.” But even he can’t keep up that fantasy.
Early on in the play, Ken riffs off of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, which Rothko has told him to read. His boss, he opines, is all Apollonian rationality and Pollock, all Dionysian ecstasy. But as Red goes on, Ken amends that view, recognizing that the two extremes coexist in Rothko and his art. “The bright colors are your passion, your will to survive—your ‘life force,'” Ken says. “Lose those colors and you have order with no content.”
When I saw Alfred Molina as Rothko in New York, that analysis was palpable onstage. Molina, who originated the role, was nothing less than a life force and also nothing less than a despot, obsessed with control. You could say it was thrilling. And you could say it made sense, illuminating the tensions in Rothko’s Four Seasons dilemma. Making them pulse like the blocks of colors in his paintings. In Robert Falls’s production, Edward Gero gives us a softer Rothko, a sentimental Rothko who actually tears up reminiscing about Pollock.
The result is dispiriting. The script retains its intellectual appeal as an energetic discussion of aesthetics, the role of the artist, and the American scene at an important transitional moment in history. But I didn’t believe Gero when he screamed at Ken, “I AM HERE TO STOP YOUR HEART, YOU UNDERSTAND THAT?!” Worse, I couldn’t imagine that he was having much of an effect on Patrick Andrews’s Ken. A solid and interesting Chicago actor, Andrews tries to generate some kill-the-father conflict. But there’s no father to kill, and so his big moments fall flat, just like Gero’s do. The only power here comes from the interaction of Todd Rosenthal’s set, with its nuanced reproductions of Rothko works, and Keith Parham’s lights, which make them look like beating hearts.