Sometimes, you go to the theatre to see a play whose pedigree is so lofty, its creators so lauded, and its star or stars so famous, that you’re almost guaranteed for a let-down -- or to be bitterly disappointed.
I’m thrilled to report that "Red," at the Mark Taper Forum, is indeed such a prize-winning play, but the Tony Award-winning drama is also one of the best nights you’ll ever spend in a theatre.
The play, by John Logan (screenwriter of "Hugo," "The Aviator" and "Gladiator") tells the story of artist Mark Rothko’s struggle over the creation of a series of paintings in the 1950s, specially commissioned by The Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s famous Seagram Building. Both Logan and director Michael Grandage won Tonys in 2010 for "Red," which was produced by London’s renowned Donmar Warehouse, a hotbed for some of the best theatre of the past decade.
The two-man fictionalized show stars Alfred Molina in an impeccable performance as Rothko, and Jonathan Groff ("Spring Awakening") as his handsome, young assistant Ken.
Rothko, who became famous for his paintings of large, colorful squares and rectangles, is a complex, intellectual artist who at once makes it clear he is not going to teach or mentor the young man, but simply employ him to help out around the studio.
Rothko doesn’t want Ken’s opinions or insights, nor does he care to learn anything about him, but as the two spend month after month in close quarters, the assistant becomes bolder, challenging the artist’s stubbornly held beliefs more frequently. Just as Rothko and his fellow abstract artists gleefully knocked the cubists and early modern artists from their perches, new arrivistes such as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg were pushing the Pollocks and Rothkos into the background.
Molina, a wonderful chameleon of an actor, is perfect as Rothko. He captures his gruffness, intensity and passion superbly, as well as his insecurities and inconsistencies. As the audience enters the Mark Taper theatre, Molina is already sitting on the stage with his back to them, soundlessly contemplating a painting, a full half an hour before the play begins.
Groff has it a bit tougher, in the role of the lively young protégé, Ken, but relaxes into the role and fleshes his character out as the intermission-free play proceeds.
Special credit must be paid to scenic and lighting designers, Christopher Oram and Neil Austin, whose work turns flat, two-dimensional paintings into glowing, intense artworks where the reds burn like molten lava. Both men were also Tony winners for their work on this show.
"Red" is a play that needs to be seen by anyone who loves great theatre, spectacular paintings and powerful performances.
"Red" plays through September 9 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 North Grand Avenue in Los Angeles. For info or tickets, call 213-972-7353 or visit www.centertheatregroup.org/