First Nighter: Important "Red" Alert on Broadway

06/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There's a three-minute sequence in Red, the startling new two-hander at the Golden (out April 1), that is--as written by John Logan, directed by Michael Grandage and played by Alfred Molina as the brilliant painter Mark Rothko and Eddie Redmayne as an aspiring artist's assistant--more fervently thrilling than anything on Broadway this charged minute.

Throughout the scene Rothko and apprentice prime a large canvas in a choreographed dance, harmoniously making wide, complementary rust-red brush-strokes. When the virtual pas de deux is done and the men have covered the once-white space, they, too, are splattered with paint. They not only resemble painters at their trade but also look as if they'd just come from an abattoir's slaughtering room. This is clearly a deliberate choice to conjure the inevitable blood spilled in the course of art and life.

Though Rothko has put on a recording of Christoph Gluck's Alceste that swells as if it were cinema underscoring, the interlude is an enthralling testament to one of the painter's documented quotable quotes, "Silence is so accurate." The silence of the two men as they work is an illustration of the committed making of art that's as indelible as the primer on the large canvas.

More than that, it's a captivating demonstration of men immersed in any sort of ultimately rewarding labor. This, of course, is one of the points that Logan--whose screenplays include The Aviator, Sweeney Todd and an upcoming Martin Scorsese project--is making, not only about the acclaimed Rothko but perhaps about his own well-remunerated endeavors.

One reason the canvas-priming is so effective stems from its contrast with the all-but-non-stop and often incendiary talk that flows through the 90-minute piece like all that engrossing red. It's an opus so immersed in its consideration of how art comes about--the nuts and bolts of building frames, stretching canvases, the compulsive inspiration behind the eventual images (of which Richard Nutbourne's replicas are lighted with inspiration by Neil Austin)--that audiences may come away divided between those enthralled in the heated discourse and those uninterested in the potential pretentiousness of so much one-track shop talk.

Count this reviewer among the former for the reason that Rothko is an hypnotic character, as he prepares in Christopher Oram's version of the Manhattan studio at 222 Bowery the all-important artworks commissioned by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe for the Four Seasons restaurant at their Park Avenue Seagram Building. Smoking and drinking incessantly (as a symptom of a mounting depression that terminates in 1970 with suicide), he's unable to stop blurting his beliefs about the reasons art must thrive in the superficially serene, deeply discomforting 1950s. Invoking Aeschylus, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche (what could be more depression-indicative?), he reiterates his attachment to red in all shades as a life-force counterbalancing black as representing despair, death, oblivion.

Rothko registers his messages by challenging assistant Ken--frequently severely upbraiding him for his partiality to pop art as a response to the abstract expressionist movement already threatening to become passé by 1959. As Rothko harangues, Logan risks reducing Red to a debate pretending to be a play. The initially reticent Ken--who'd like to show Rothko his own paintings but can't muster the courage--gradually learns to give as good as he gets. He even reveals a personal history as pain-riddled as Rothko's, and yet he remains a somewhat under-developed sounding-board.

Logan is saved by both the shaved-headed Molina and the thin, nimble, appropriately-named Redmayne, who just won England's Olivier award for his supporting contribution. Both actors, their New York accents precisely right, perform with the power of the hammers and staplers they wield. They're well-matched warriors on a battlefield, the blood-like paint they acquire at their tasks badges of honor.

Red, imported from the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse, is one of three recent London dramas concerned with the creation of art--a welcome synchronicity at a time when art is sorely underappreciated as necessary to societal prosperity. The other entries are Alan Bennett's The Habit of Art, which introduces W. H. Auden and Benjamin Britten toiling; the other is Lee Hall's The Pitman Painters, an adaptation of a real-life '30s incident in northern England when several miners took up painting and became unexpectedly successful at it.

Much of the contents of Red appear in Simon Schama's 2006 television documentary on Rothko called The Power of Art. In it, Rothko, embodied by the actor Alan Corduner, is seen sitting in a club chair, smoking and contemplating a possibly unfinished, possibly finished work. It's the same set-up that begins Logan's Red. In both instances, it's an invitation to think seriously about the need for, and effect of, art and the immeasurable benefits of that consideration.

Red insists that art matters; so does Red matter in all its dark, dramatic hues.