Plays about art are often in danger of becoming solipsistic. Playwrights and visual artists live in the same worlds—low pay, work created in solitude, 15 minutes of fame followed by potential obscurity, and the need for constant patronage. It would have been easy, then, for Red, John Logan’s ferocious new drama about the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, starring Alfred Molina and opening on Broadway tonight, to have veered into navel-gazing territory. Fortunately, given Logan’s watertight script— Red runs 80 minutes—and Molina’s hypnotic, hectoring performance as a painter grasping at the last straws of fame, the play becomes something else altogether: Red is not only about the interior struggles of artists, but of anyone who has ever felt their powers slipping away as the world spins forward.
“Rothko was a man who had very strict and demanding standards, and he wasn’t a guy you wanted to have dinner with,” says Molina. “I have no problem playing characters who are not sympathetic.”
Red takes place inside Rothko’s New York studio over a period of two years (1958-59), when the artist was paid $30,000 to paint a series of large-scale color-block canvases for the Four Seasons restaurant inside the new Seagram building. He is working with a plucky new assistant, Ken (played by the confident up-and-comer Eddie Redmayne), who is also a painter, and though Ken begins the play in awe of Rothko and his talents, he slowly grows to distrust the artist, who has accepted the money to put his work inside a garishly commercial space, but preaches constantly to his apprentice about sticking to one’s principles and grand ideals. Rothko is consumed with his own mythological status as the man who “killed Cubism” but with Pop Art eclipsing abstract expressionism, the artist is also terrified of his future. “Rothko is unique in that he enjoyed so much success in his lifetime,” Molina tells The Daily Beast. “He was a huge, monstrous, guy, and not very sympathetic in the end. But we’ve all had that feeling as creative people, staring into the faces of the other people who’ve come before, have raised the bar so high, and wondering how we will be remembered.”
Logan’s play presents not only a battle between generations and art movements, but also between shifting ideologies in the late ‘50s—the Mad Men conservatism wheeling into ‘60s radicalism. Rothko believed in color as a way to express feeling through order, and careful construction, while Ken is from a generation of painters—his new idols are Warhol, Lichtenstein—who want art to be a knowing mirror held up to the art world, exposing hypocrisy.
“I sat in a corner of a bar, and by page 21, and I had that sinking feeling when you know you have to do it,” Molina says of discovering the play, which was slipped across the table to him by the director, Michael Grandage. “When you know you just have to do something, it’s never a punching the air moment. It’s a sinking feeling. All your options are disappearing. I had to be Rothko.”
Molina and Redmayne began performing Red in December at London’s Donmar Warehouse, and the midway through the acclaimed run, producers decided to bring it to Broadway. “He’s a brilliant, wonderful young actor, one of the best actors of his generation,” Molina says of his stage partner. The two share a breathtaking moment on stage, when they prepare a raw canvas together. To prime the work, they each roll up their sleeves and slosh into a bucket of crimson paint, quickly covering the canvas, the stage, and each other in slashes of red. The stage looks like a murder scene at the end. (In a twist, we also discover early that Ken’s parents were killed and he is preoccupied with finding a mentor/father figure in Rothko, only to realize he has chosen a false idol.) The moment, dreamed up by Logan and the set designer, Christopher Oram, shows the two characters coming together to create something, but also begins their rift.
“Oddly enough, that scene happens exactly halfway through the play,” says Molina, who last appeared on Broadway as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. “It is the fulcrum, when Ken is beginning to get the measure of his master. It’s a very satisfying moment.” And of the set, a red-splattered wall with constantly rotating red canvases that the actors must swap out themselves, Molina says, “It puts us absolutely in the world. You see us moving canvases and creating them, seeing that art is actually physical, hard work.”
For art history buffs, the play’s ending is not a surprise—Rothko’s paintings never did hang at the Seagram building. He went to the restaurant one night near the project deadline, and disgusted by the capitalistic, wealth-worshipping aspects of the space and its guests, he stopped convincing himself that the Four Seasons would be a “temple” for his work. In the play, he justifies accepting the commission from architects Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson by referencing Michelangelo, whom he says, “achieved just the kind of feeling I was after for the Four Seasons. He makes the viewer feel he is trapped in a room where all the doors and windows are bricked up, so all he can do is butt his head against the wall forever. I know that place is where the richest bastards in New York will come to feed and show off … And I hope to ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who eats there.” But in the end, turning stomachs was not enough of an excuse for Rothko to complete such a commercial project. He returned the advance, and committed suicide 10 years later.
“There’s a line when he says, ‘Courage in painting isn’t facing the blank canvas, it’s facing Manet, it’s facing Velasquez. All we can do is move beyond what was there, to what is here, and hope to get some intimation of what will be here.’ And I really understand that.”
Today, the Seagram Murals hang inside the Tate Museum in London, where Molina went to see them as preparation for the role. “The play has helped me gain a deep understanding, a deeper appreciation of the man’s work,” says the 56-year-old actor, who had previously played Diego Rivera onscreen. “He was preoccupied with the notion of tragedy as a concept, and he was obviously difficult man at work, but he loved his children, he managed to successfully separate his private life from work, and he worked every day, 9 to 5. Unlike his contemporaries, he lived the life of the mind. He believed that study could only improve the rest of his work.”
This is the tactic that Molina took to play Rothko as well. “I read every book and monograph, and the Breslin biography, which is definitive. It was just a matter of reading everything and immersing myself in all the facts and page. Rothko was a man who had very strict and demanding standards, and he wasn’t a guy you wanted to have dinner with. I have no problem playing characters who are not sympathetic if that’s what the research shows.”
And though Molina claims to have little in common with Rothko’s animalistc demeanor, he does say he shares the artist’s fear about not living up to one’s predecessors and leaving a legacy. “There’s a line when he says, ‘Courage in painting isn’t facing the blank canvas, it’s facing Manet, it’s facing Velasquez. All we can do is move beyond what was there, to what is here, and hope to get some intimation of what will be here.’ And I really understand that. You have to meet the standard of those who’ve come before to consider yourself an artist in a real way. That’s what it is to be a creative person.”
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Rachel Syme is the former culture editor of The Daily Beast and now writes regularly about the arts.