Just a skosh more karmic body english, and playwright John Logan might have found his name on everybody’s lips. The San Diego native is one of the latest in a very long line of great Chicago authors, with a big-time taste for fightin’ words and terse oratory. If tough-talking Chicagoan David Mamet had sworn an allegiance to another city, Logan would have been swept in in his place, solidifying Chicago’s stature as the greatest theater town in the United States (it is, y’know).
In fact, you can’t necessarily tell the difference between Mamet and Logan in the latter’s Red, the current entry from San Diego Repertory Theatre. This six-Tony winner’s speeches are peppered with f-bombs, near fisticuffs, a combative central figure and a life-or-death environment, and the topic (visual art) is one you don’t normally associate with almost barroom confrontation. And even though that central figure is taken from real life, Logan adroitly skirts the temptation to turn his script into a bioplay. Live theater and sketch drama never, ever mix—but as this excellent turn illustrates, live theater and historical anecdote are joined at the hip.
Abstract expressionism—artist-ese for the psychopathy of self-involvement—was gaining mainstream acceptance in the America of the 1950s. Jackson Pollock’s drippy canvases and Jay Meuser’s stocky military portraits figured in the mix along with Red‘s Mark Rothko (John Vickery), whose art was characterized by its lush strokes and dark colors. In the play, he meets up with Ken (Jason Maddy), his young and eager assistant, who represents the new guard—Ken notes that Rothko has accepted a commission to paint works of art for the walls of a fancy-schmancy restaurant, and that marks Rothko a sell-out as far as Ken’s concerned. The speeches center on what constitutes artistry, the uneducated masses, Rothko’s hermit’s existence and what it means to create a work of art.
The irascible Rothko knows a lot less about that than he thinks he does—and he acknowledges it at the end of the play with one phone call. He also fires Ken, not out of vindictiveness but amid a true admiration for Ken’s perspective on art. Without the constraints of work, Ken’s now free to live the artist’s life that is his birthright.
The real Rothko, born in today’s Latvia, committed suicide in 1970 at age 66, grief-stricken that patrons were maybe buying his material out of a sense of fashion. To his great credit, Logan isn’t inclined to delve into the facts of the matter as we know them or could find them; he’s intent instead on building Rothko from the inside out, shaping him as the invincible, gravel-voiced arbiter on all things artistic. At the beginning and end of the play, he’s transfixed by a painting that rests over the audience’s heads; we can’t see it, but it doesn’t matter, because Rothko thinks we’re all crazy anyway. It’s a nice touch, parrying nice-guy Ken’s uplifting repartee and marking Rothko for the knee-jerk idiot he is.
The one-syllable back-and-forth; the wry generational cross-talk; Rothko’s roily artist’s past; Ken’s hangdog expressions and fair-haired restraint, then confrontation, in the presence of greatness: Vickery and Maddy are a true team, with director Michael Arabian exploiting every facet of their characters’ histrionics. If Mamet himself had helmed this piece, he’d have made exactly the same moves, capitalizing on each actor’s physical presence as it fuels the contentious speeches.
I didn’t realize the Lyceum has such a generous upstage, which lends itself to the warehouse feel in Giulio Perrone’s set. Brian Gale’s lights are utilitarian one minute and funereal the next, while costumer Anastasia Pautova has captured Rothko’s Vince Lombardi side (usually the only one he shows) to a T.
Fine art is a totally subjective enterprise, and Rothko reminds us of that through the boisterousness and arrogance in his insistence to the contrary. Accordingly, we’re willing to give him a long leash amid his outlandishness—that’s good for Vickery’s winning performance, for Logan’s meat-and-potatoes style and for the Rep’s broad-brush approach to a solid, very compelling work.
This review is based on the matinee performance of April 6. Red runs through April 27 at The Lyceum, 79 Horton Plaza downtown. About $31-$47, students $18. 619-544-1000, sdrep.org.