Actor Kieran Connolly sits in full view for 20 minutes before the first word of Red, the two-man bio-drama about artist Mark Rothko now running at the Wyly Theatre. As patrons take their seats, Connolly leans back in a chair, silently, intently staring at a huge red and black painting, a believable copy of a Rothko on the 360-degree "set" by designer Bob Lavallee.
Dallas Theater Center, co-producing with Dallas Museum of Art, has converted the Wyly's high-ceilinged ninth-floor rehearsal hall into Rothko's Bowery studio for this intense 90-minute play. This puts 130 theatergoers within spitting distance of actors who do not break the "fourth wall" despite the proximity of viewers.
Director Joel Ferrell keeps Connolly and co-star Jordan Brodess moving all over the room. In one corner, a wet bar; in another, a door to the "outside." Over here, a work table where Brodess' character Ken, a fictional assistant, saws lumber for frames for Rothko's canvases; over there, an old-fashioned stereo console where records play Mozart and Schubert, and a little bit of Chet Baker.
On all four walls of the space hang impressive replicas of the stark red and black murals Rothko was commissioned to create for the Phillip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe-designed Seagram Building on Park Avenue in the late 1950s. As the play tells it, when Rothko realized the pieces would hang above the heads of diners in the ritzy Four Seasons restaurant, he gave back the money and kept his paintings. Red gets into this artist's, really every artist's, ethical tug of war between devotion to art and need for commerce.
Winner of the Tony, Drama Desk and other awards when it played on Broadway three years ago, Red is decidedly less abstract than its subject. Logan's script is tightly constructed and formulaic, beginning and ending with Rothko asking Ken "What do you see?" Between the questions is a lively Socratic dialogue between master and student, though Rothko insists "I am not your teacher" within moments of hiring Ken. Rothko paints the air blue with profanity, as when he challenges Ken's observation that all he sees on that canvas is "red."
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"By what right do you speak? ... Who the fuck are you? What have you done?" Rothko shouts at the young man. "You mean scarlet? You mean crimson? You mean plum-mulberry-magenta-burgundy-salmon-carmine-carnelian-coral? Anything but 'red'! What is 'red'!"
Meek at first, Ken grows bolder during his two-year apprenticeship (the time lapse is loosely alluded to), eventually challenging Rothko's aesthetic. Ken, also a painter, admires the up-and-comers of the 1960s art world — Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns — whom Rothko regards as enemies of serious art and sell-outs to collectors who buy according to sofa size. "At least Warhol gets the joke," Ken counters. He holds his own against the "titanic self-absorption" of Rothko. "Do you ever get tired of telling people what art is?" asks Ken.
No, he doesn't. And that's a weakness of this Red. All we get is an angry, unlikable Rothko, making the same points over and over. Actor Connolly, a member of DTC's resident company, starts out at maximum rage and stays there. Where's the wit? The ups and downs of mood? Where's the fun of Rothko's verbal shellacking of Jackson Pollock and the other contemporaries held in low esteem? Connolly plays Rothko on one note — low D-flat, pounded with a paint-stained thumb.
Meanwhile, young Brodess acts rings around him, giving Ken a real arc as the character gains power and realizes Rothko's floating blocks of scarlet and black are as much a gimmick as Warhol's soup cans. It's Brodess who brings the biggest range of colors to the acting in Red.