Might be best to simply go see Langhorne Players‘ second offering of the season, John Logan’s Red, without reading this review, particularly if you’ve never heard of it. Sometimes having little idea of what you are walking into is perfect. And with this Patrick Chmel-directed drama, you actually do walk in on it. The play is underway when the house opens 15 minutes before the “curtain goes up.”
During the time the audience members take their seats, hug friends, settle and chat, William Braak’s Mark Rothko stares at “his” work while listening to opera, moves canvases around, cleans paint brushes, pours a drink. Braak, new to Langhorne Players, but certainly not the stage, has a gaze so intent that I catch myself peeking over my shoulder at the empty brick wall behind me.
At first I worry the 15 minutes might be interminable, as a 90-minute production with no intermission. Then, 105 minutes later, I realize I was wrong. It is just enough time. Time to feel challenged, enlightened, emotionally pricked, and yes, entertained. Only the first three would be acceptable to the subject of the two-person play.
Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, a Russian Jew, emigrated with his family at the age of 10, speaking only Hebrew and Russian. He earned a scholarship to Yale University, only to leave after two years. In 1958, he accepted a lucrative commission to create about seven works for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram’s skyscraper. A 2010 article in The New Yorker claims Rothko thought the pieces would hang in the lobby, later pulling them when he discovered his work would decorate the restaurant. The play doesn’t mention this, but the commission — and Rothko’s conflict with taking it — is the focus of the play.
Mid-century America was a time of conspicuous consumption, bigotry and elitism. All of which helped and hindered Rothko, who was born Marcus Rothkowitz.
“No one even knows I’m a Jew,” he says in the play. After visiting the restaurant, exhausting himself trying to impress the patrons, and his wallet trying to impress the “wine guy,” he says, “I feel too God-damned Jewish for this place.”
It’s grueling to always feel as though you don’t belong. A scholarship recipient to an Ivy League school feels this, as does a poor immigrant, a non-Christian in Russia and the United States, an artist who paints in a style that is, by many, considered ideal “over-mantel” art. Yet Rothko was an artist able to command a prestigious payment.
It’s as if the artist alternates between pinching himself that people like him so much, and punching people for not respecting him enough. He tells his young (fictionalized) assistant Ken he will make the restaurant a temple, and adds later, “I hope to ruin the appetites of every son-of-a-bitch that eats there.”
Ken, played by John Patrick Mintz, contradicts him. “Your paintings aren’t weapons.”
Mintz is also new to Langhorne Players. His Ken amplifies Rothko’s fluctuating self-doubt and grandiosity. Mintz allows his Ken to follow a natural arc from corn-fed Iowan orphan, cowering like an abuse victim when the famous artist explodes, to ambitious young artist, challenging Rothko for not asking about his own work. We never learn much about Ken, only a few minutes of the most tragic day of his life. Despite his harsh realities, Ken is positive, helpful, pleasant.
In one of the play’s most active scenes, Ken readies yet another canvas for priming, he prepares two pails of maroon paint, turns the stereo on full volume, and stands in front of the piece-to-be, brush in hand, side-by-side with Rothko. In a ballet/bacchanalia mash-up, the two men slap a coat of maroon on the large canvas, every inch of white covered. The snow white canvas turned blood red is a metaphor for Ken’s most painful memory.
The young man has lived through anguish. Rothko is living torment.
“Not all art has to be psychodrama!” says Ken.
But life is drama and art is life for Rothko, who none-the-less keeps “banker’s hours” in his studio. During his nine-to-five, he creates works that he intends to “stop your heart” and “make you think.” “I’m not here to paint pretty pictures.”
When the depressive Rothko worries his “children” will be captive in the restaurant for the rest of their “lives,” Ken –with perhaps more perspective than the older man — says, “They’re just paintings.”
Rothko may use Daniel 5:27 against Ken: “You have been weighed in the balances, and have been found wanting.” However, it is the elder man’s biggest fear.
I haven’t touched on half the themes of Red. However, it is best if you just order a ticket and see for yourself. Langhorne Players rarely disappoints, and certainly doesn’t with Red.