The setting is Rothko's Bowery studio in 1958 and, as the play opens, chamber music plays and Epstein as Rothko enters. Donald Eastman brings the scene to the audience by supplying large abstract canvases center stage and small rooms to either sideone with a sink and another with a desk and period phonograph.
The abstract painter has received a commission to create a mural for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building on Park Avenue. He is not certain whether to proceed but he desperately wants to, at the very least, be understood. Rothko asks young Ken what he sees, but will berate the youthful and slight helper until the moment when Ken takes on a confrontational posture. Ken ultimately does come of age as he grows stronger during the two-year period traversed during the 90-minute Red. Finally, this student wields his own figurative dagger.
Epstein (who deserves high praise for his multitude of excellent performance with Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, and elsewhere) is fiery, haughty, and deliberately insulting. This actor, though, finds other dimensions and we see an insecure Rothko as well. The demanding Rothko, who requires that anyone visiting possess philosophical acumen enabling understanding of his hero Nietzsche, demands that Ken comprehend what he, Rothko, seeks. Nietzsche's nihilism suggests that life is meaningless; the Rothko of Red would not have embraced this philosophy. The grizzled older artist explains that Picasso taught him that "movement is life." Rothko came along with Jackson Pollack and Robert Rauschenberg. Now, Rothko especially disdains the work of Andy Warhol.
One scene features Rothko and Ken joining to paint an entire canvas red. The lyrical Ken dances through his strokes while fervent Rothko makes semi-circles with his brush until everything is covered.
The physical textures and set pieces show and speak as they depict Rothko's environment. Everything is his and he assumes, with supreme arrogance, that Ken will cower to him. The irony, as mentioned earlier, is that when the younger man takes the bait and challenges, the seasoned painter acknowledges respect.
Jonathan Epstein's voice is booming and his delivery sometimes staccato. Thomas Leverton, by contrast, is smoother but, in the end, not necessarily quieter. The younger actor realizes the promise of his dialogue as the juxtaposition of these two men fuels the show.
Epstein is a large, hulking power source whose character is dismissive of most anyone except thinkers such as Nietzsche, Jung and Freud. He treats his assistant as if the younger man is an intruder and, further, an ignorant presence. A play of this genre could have resulted in a lengthy one act exercise. Playwright Logan injects tension through his sharp dialogue and allows room for the two men to evolve. Tazewell Thompson, who has often directed during the recent past at TheaterWorks, does an excellent job with actor placement during the current show. Each will gaze at the audience, stare at one another ... . Epstein, upon occasion, sits in an unfinished Adirondack chair positioned at the foot of the stage which faces away from theater patrons. An evening spent with these men becomes heated with its intensity and increasingly intriguing as the back-and-forth escalates.
Red continues at TheaterWorks of Hartford through May 6th. For tickets, call (860) 527-7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.
- Fred Sokol