“Yes, artists should starve. Except me.” So says the mercurial Mark Rothko (Edward Gero) in John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award winner about the painter. Taking place in the artist’s Bowery studio circa 1958–59, Red finds the Abstract Expressionist struggling over the series of murals he’s been commissioned to paint for the new Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. Rothko notes as a point of pride that his $35,000 commission eclipses that of any other artist, but he’s also fiercely protective of his work and clearly troubled by the implications of “art as interior decoration.”
Rothko had a reputation for grandiose statements, which Logan latches onto with verve. For much of the intermissionless play’s first hour, Red threatens to be little more than an overly precious defense of vulnerable art and artists from the vulgarity of critics and commerce—a stance that, like Rothko’s line quoted above, might feel extra pungent here in Chicago’s most well-off nonprofit theater.
Luckily for us, Logan’s more nuanced than that. While much of the play does consist primarily of doctrinal diatribes about art, the playwright gives Rothko a foil of increasing confidence in Ken (Patrick Andrews), the fictionalized assistant who serves as Rothko’s sounding board and eventual challenger. “Do you ever get tired of telling people what art is?” Ken asks Rothko late in the play, finally speaking up about the painter’s “titanic self-absorption.”
Ken lays bare Rothko’s fears that a new generation of artists—Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol—will steam roll him just as Rothko and Jackson Pollock did to Picasso and the Cubists. Without going overboard, Gero and Andrews make their arguments sound like the stuff of life and death. Robert Falls’s smartly scaled production admirably embraces their silences as well as their eruptions.