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

Stage Door: Lend Me A Tenor, Red

Lend Me A Tenor has several pluses and lots of funny moments, but the revival at the Music Box fails to hit the high notes. It's set in 1934, and like many Thirties screwball comedies, the Depression doesn't exist. The affluent do -- and they are gathering at the Opera Guild of Cleveland to see Otello, starring world-famous Tito Merelli (a playfully dopey Anthony LaPaglia).

Merelli arrives at his hotel suite with his tempestuous wife Maria (the always-wonderful Jan Maxwell). Saunders, an explosive opera impresario (Tony Shalhoub), has asked his nerdy assistant Max (Justin Bartha) to keep the unpredictable Tito happy until the performance. Which means, he has to cope with Saunders' love-struck daughter Maggie (Mary Catherine Garrison), a predatory soprano (a terrific Jennifer Laura Thompson) and a campy bellhop (Jay Kaitz).

The laughs are genuine, and when Tito, due to a series of crazy misunderstandings, seems unable to perform, Saunders cooks up a wacky scheme to save the day. What ensues is pure farce -- romantic missteps, mistaken identities, sexual misunderstandings -- which proves fertile comedic ground, both verbal and physical.

There is a lot of silly fun here; the problem -- and it's a big one -- is the pacing. Farce is best performed at top speed, like Noises Off or playwright Ken Ludwig's own Twentieth Century. By contrast, Tenor dilutes some of its enjoyment by a lumbered pace in the first act, only somewhat heightened in the second. The zippy tempo of the final two minutes is a glimpse of what might have been, had director Stanley Tucci just taken the production up a few notches.

Secondly, though Shalhoub is serviceable, he needs to sharpen his delivery. A miscast is Brooke Adams as Julia, the opera president. She's far too pert, lacking the affectations of Depression-era wealth, while Bartha, whose role enjoys the most range, holds his own. Maxwell, a standout, is most at home here -- she plays it the way farce is intended: over the top.

Red is a fascinating 90-minute play that embraces the art and passions of Mark Rothko. Actually, in this two-man production at the Golden Theater, they are one and the same. Red is less conventional drama and more recitation. It doubles as a master class in art, light and the nature -- and purpose -- of creation. And thanks to a powerful performance by Alfred Molina as the towering egoist, and an eloquent script by John Logan, it's an extraordinary education. As Rothko rails against the buyers, sellers, critics and poseurs who dare to commoditize art, he reveals his deeply spiritual mission: "I am here to stop your heart! I am here to make you think. I am not here to make pretty pictures!"

The play is set in the late 1950s; Rothko has been commissioned to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building, still under construction. To prepare, he engages an assistant named Ken (a solid Eddie Redmayne), who endures his tantrums and is rewarded with a ringside seat as the fiery intellectual turns zealot. Rothko's religion is the purity of art, its ability to sustain us, and ultimately, to move us toward the tragic, inevitable blackness he fears.

Ken enters as a blank canvas himself; eventually, he will absorb Rothko's Socratic teachings, then challenge his assertions. The tormented Rothko is unnerved by a complacent society and horrified by art buyers who only want something to hang over the mantle. And he is galled by Pop Art. First he trumpets how he, Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollack trounced the Cubists. But when Ken suggests Frank Stella and Andy Warhol are the new generation of geniuses, Rothko balks. His venom is genuine -- and the discussion of eternal art, such as Rembrandt and Turner, versus art that is soulless and ephemeral -- the Young Turks he hates -- is riveting.

Rothko was a fan of silences, and director Michael Grandage has sensitively directed Red with that in mind. He lets Neil Austin's superb lighting and the shimmering paintings speak volumes. Molina's Rothko is a bellowing narcissist, but a deeply committed painter. He views his work with a parent's fierce love and devotion. He is never less than compelling. And neither is Red.