But I was wrong about the metal chair, and the warehouse atmosphere actually lends a huge amount to the creative atmosphere. In fact, I soon forgot every minor discomfort as Steve Callahan began his portrayal of the abstract artist Mark Rothko in this 2009 play by John Logan. Somehow, though, I still find it hard to wrap my head around the fact that Mr. Callahan can be both utterly obnoxious and completely charming all at the same time. But yes he can, and yes he is.
Pete Winfrey as Ken, his newly-hired young assistant, has the same problem with his employerthe painter who's contemptuous of assigned meaning, and yet insists on quizzing the younger man about it absolutely all the time. It soon becomes obvious the boy will never really get into the inner-orbit of the fascinating but irascible painter, in this Bowery studio (although there's something distinctly sexual in the air after they paint a background on a canvas). But Mr. Winfrey is so fresh faced and genuine in rising again and again to the challenge, that (even in their endless disagreements) the play becomes irresistible.
Jack Dryden directs this revival of the Tonys' 2010 Best Play, subtly bringing the characters in and out of the foreground, like Rothko's own enigmatic rectangles themselves, which seem to float back and forth from their borders, till we're never sure which is really the background at all. The paintings' smoldering edges, shown in full-sized reproductions around the set, also hint at the unbearable tension of the nuclear arms race overshadowing the 1950s.
But, if you prefer, you can put all that aside in favor of one of the 20th century's greatest artistic twist-endingsand, obviously, it would be better if I didn't spoil for you right here and now. Suffice it to say that Rothko was given a lot of money to create a series of his bold paintings for the elegant Four Seasons restaurant atop the sparkling new Seagram Building, and that Mr. Callahan as the famed artist has a series of speeches about his own doubts about the whole deal, which will gradually consume him. His last big speech on the transaction, to Mr. Winfrey's Ken, lays out a vision of a freak show from one of the lowest circles of Hell.
Much of Rothko's consternation throughout comes from selling his work to people he disdains, but somewhere in there, one of Ken's speeches seems to indicate this is simply the way of the world: that anything sufficiently twisted and tortured by fate will eventually become the property of someone who has no eye for the elusive beauty of such a tormented vision. Even without that intuitive insight, though, whether recovering from a dangerous fall, or grilling the assistant on the meaning of those glowering paintings, Mr. Callahan is thoroughly engaging.
There are other high points and other recurring themes in the dynamic talk and action, but the immense likability of both performers is what ultimately lifts the show from being a mere clash of competing visions.
Red skips the weekend of August 9-11, 2013, but returns August 16th and 17th for two final performances at #10 Kirkham Road in Webster Groves, MO. For more information go to encoretheatergroup.simdif.com or their Facebook page at encoretheatergroup.
Photo by Kingsley Uwalaka