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NY Theater Reviews

Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne/ Ph: Johan Persson

ART ISN'T EASY

By ROBERT CASHILL

This London import gives us a dramatic evening behind the scenes with artist Mark Rothko.

Mark Rothko gets the bioplay treatment in the West End import Red. Plot-wise it’s paint-by-numbers: We meet the subject at a turning point in his creative life, watch as he bounces ideas and invective off an underling, enjoy a few war stories from the old days, puzzle over questions of art, commerce, and philosophy, witness the tumultuous resolution—then run back home to our computers for Wikipedia to fill in the blanks. Don’t expect the shock of the new from this one.
 
But John Logan is one of the better practitioners of the form, with the excellent Leopold and Loeb dramatization Never the Sinner and the Howard Hughes film The Aviator under his belt, and director Michael Grandage, of Frost/Nixon fame, knows how to stage and pace one. And Alfred Molina is perfectly cast as the uncompromising Rothko, caught at a seemingly compromising juncture in the late 50s, when architect Philip Johnson tapped him to paint a series of murals for the swank, soon-to-open Four Seasons restaurant. A broad actor when he started out, Molina has learned the virtue of playing at a more human scale, ironically when he most needed to be big, in the Fiddler on the Roof revival. His Rothko takes his genius as a given, and thinks the new commission will allow him to shove art into the wealthy diners’ faces. But he’s vulnerable to the questions raised by his latest assistant, Ken (Eddie Redmayne), and lashes out in volcanic fury, just as self-doubt creeps in.
 
Unlike the sounding boards in most shows of this type, Ken has an intriguing back-story of his own, which frustrates Rothko as the artist tries to pry it out of him. I was somewhat frustrated by Redmayne, who won an Olivier Award for his work. Best known for playing Julianne Moore’s deeply troubled son in the film Savage Grace, the actor has trouble sustaining his American accent, and swallows the end of his sentences. He doesn’t look particularly period, either, and stands out from the otherwise meticulous re-creation of the production. That said, at curtain call it was clear that master and apprentice had forged a strong bond, and there is compensation in having it retained on Broadway.
 
Both soar in one of the season’s showstoppers, when they prime one of Rothko’s imposing red-and-black canvases. Red is smart to show its subject doing something, rather than just have him talk about it, and the scene is a triumph as well for set and costume designer Christopher Oram, lighting designer Neil Austin, and composer and sound designer Adam Cork. The arduous, paint-splattered sequence proves, as another artist wrote, that art isn’t easy.