“Red,” the Tony Award-winning play by John Logan about the meaning of art, is really about the meaning of life. Four times the question is asked, “What do you see?” And ultimately the answer is, “What does life mean?”
Portentous stuff and dangerously pretentious — just what we need, another hothouse evening of posturing about the meaning of art or whatever — except that in director Benjamin Loewy’s hands the discussion is visceral. These are life-and-death issues. The audience cannot watch aloof and detached. It is life-changing.
Taylor Hanes as Mark Rothko is an artist at the zenith of his career. He can command what at the time was one of the highest commissions ever paid to paint four panels for New York’s Four Seasons restaurant. The restaurant was the gem of the modernist Seagram Building designed by Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe. Rothko believes it will serve as a place of communion for his art.
Cory Goble is Ken, the young assistant who is paid to help Rothko prime his canvases. On his first day on the job he appears in jacket and tie, obviously in awe of the famous artist. The first thing the paint-spattered Rothko asks is, “What do you see?” Ken artlessly replies, “Red.” Which sends Rothko off on his first of many tirades about the meaning of art, color, observation and the tragedy of life. “You have to move closer,” he tells Ken.
Rothko treats Ken as little more than a minion; he is less a mentor than a boss who is impossible to satisfy. Ken can’t even pick up take-out Chinese without getting a lecture on the transience of human existence. His own existence is largely ignored by Rothko.
Gradually, a working bond forms between the two men. Ken now appears as paint-splattered as Rothko. In one of the play’s best moments, the two become absorbed as they work together to prime a blank canvas. A subtle father-son motif emerges.
The challenge for Cory Goble as Ken is that he could become little more than a simp to the powerful Taylor Hanes as Rothko. During one discussion, Rothko says to Ken, “Go on, I’m fascinated by me.”
Director Loewy doesn’t let that happen, and Goble’s subtle performance holds its own emotionally, steel to Hanes’ steel. When Rothko asks Ken a second time, “What do you see?” the tragedy of Ken’s own life is revealed through the meaning of the color white.
Taylor Hanes’ Rothko is a dinosaur, the last of the great Abstract Expressionists, for whom art is a spiritual expression, his colors pulsing with life. Black for Rothko is the diminution of life that surrounds the colors of his paintings. He sees the tragedy of life as the constant struggle for balance between black and red.
Returning from lunch at the Four Seasons, Rothko enters in jacket and tie as Ken, splattered by paint, prepares a canvas. He asks Ken a third time, “What do you see?” Ken’s answer sets Rothko off on a rant about aesthetics. Rothko fears the wounds to the innocence of his creations by the clawing, chewing avarice of the rich who will view his paintings at Four Seasons as mere decorations. Ken responds that pop artists, like Andy Warhol, “get the joke” about the commercialization of art.
As the scene unfolds, Hanes visibly transforms himself from the arrogant great artist into a great man’s humbleness before his own art. In a gesture of an acolyte, Ken washes Rothko’s red-stained hands. Hanes as Rothko is transformative; one is not the same after seeing him in this deeply human performance.
Although what Rothko is working on is only imagined, Anthony Barnaby’s astonishing visual designs are projected against the blank canvas that dominates the center of the stage, beautifully illuminating each scene.
When Rothko asks for the last time, “What do you see?” we understand along with Ken the meaning of “Red.”