by John Logan
Directed by Michael Grandage
Starring Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne
John Golden Theatre on 45th Street

Reviewed by David Spencer

Treatment is everything. After the perfectly mediocre writing in Looped (the current, soon-to-be recent play about Tallulah Bankhead), it's astonishing to see another play that follows essentially the same dramaturgical trope—a character study of an iconic cultural figure in which a "subservient" character (who never existed) is the foil whose questions and reactions prompt the icon to ever-more-deeply reveal him- or herself, while becoming increasingly frustrating to the foil; leading at last to a moment when the foil has an epiphany of personal revelation that, guess what, the manipulative icon was angling for all the time. In Looped it seems an obvious contrivance.


In John Logan's Red, however, it isn't until the play is over that you become consciously aware of the structural design. Not that it's a hard one to perceive, but the dialogue is so rich and the characterizations so finely sculpted that you’re distracted away from mechanics and—apt metaphor, this—drawn into the canvas. The time is the mid-late 60s, and the icon in question is abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko—a man of furious, angry intellect (played with astonishing verve and fire by Alfred Molina), who is working on a series of large paintings especially commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York City. As the play begins, he is studying a (perhaps) finished canvas for the series, in which red has a “dialogue” with black, a theme of the series and also, as the psychological resonances of those colors emerges, of his life. Then enters Ken, a young, aspiring artist that Rothko will hire as his assistant, making it clear and unequivocal that he—Rothko—is not the “kid’s” teacher, rabbi, friend or anything familiar, just his boss, and that Ken is only an employee. But of course and inevitably, Rothko does become all those things to Ken, just as Ken becomes Rothko’s protégé, though neither will articulate this. (Eddie Redmayne plays Ken with a deceptive simplicity, letting the young man appear as callow as Rothko believes him to be, but gradually filling out his own canvas as the character gets bolder.) It’s almost certain that Logan intends, as conscious metaphor, that his characters emerge as developing works-in-progress too, and the play is a brilliant articulation of both artistic and inter-personal process.


The direction by Michael Grandage is at once elegant, unobtrusive and spare with the actors, while as visually provocative as a Rothko canvas (one also must acknowledge the crucial contributions of set & costume designer Christopher Oram, lighting designer Neil Austin and sound designer/composer Adam Cork).


Red is an exhilarating evening of language, ideas, passion and imagery. The imported engagement (which debuted at London’s Donmar Warehouse, despite Logan being an American playwright) is, according to the brochure, limited to 15 weeks. But the afterburn may well last a lifetime…

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