By Toby Zinman
For the Inquirer
Philadelphia stages are currently awash in big ideas. Adding to the heady tumult is Philadelphia Theatre Company’s production of ‘Red’, John Logan’s engrossing play about the 20th century titan of Abstract Expressionism, the painter Mark Rothko. In the course of 100 minutes, we will learn a good deal about art and art history and creative passion and the crass spectre of commerce that looms over the high-end art market. (The program tellingly points out that a Rothko painting recently sold at auction for $73 million.)
From the first line, “What do you see?” we’re put on notice: this play is about looking—really looking—at art. The tricky part in any play about a visual artist making art, is that we rarely believe the actors onstage are actually painting, much less painting great pictures. But in Red, the stage is filled with Rothko’s color field paintings, huge canvases where “there is tragedy in every brushstroke.”
So it’s exciting to see Rothko (Stephen Rowe) and his young assistant Ken (Haley Joel Osment) prime a canvas before our eyes and see how much physical exertion is involved in the making of this kind of art.
Logan’s Rothko is irascible, rabbinical, intellectual, ego-maniacal, and demanding—a tough guy to work for, as Ken finds out. But under Anders Cato’s direction, the play seems to have been softened, lacking the ruthless drive it had in the London production which when it transferred to New York won six Tony Awards.
Rowe’s performance as Rothko is vivid and impressive but perhaps too kindly, too much the Jewish uncle educating his favorite nephew. Osment (remember the child star of Sixth Sense “I see dead people”?) lacks the necessary tautness the role seems to require; he speaks his lines as though they were written for him (as of course they were) without seeming to be a person who could think such thoughts.
The physical production is handsome (which may not be quite what the play requires): the set (James Noone) is imposing although the years of spatters and spills and mess seem tamed; the lighting (Tyler Micoleau) is true to its subject: Rothko hated natural light.
Early on in Red Rothko tells us, “There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend…One day the black will swallow the red.” And so it did. The play stops short of the biographic conclusion: ten years later, Rothko would send the Seagram Murals, the paintings filling the stage, to the Tate Gallery in London, and Rothko would be found dead, a suicide, on the blood-covered floor of his studio.
Philadelphia Theatre Co. at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad & Lombard Sts. Through Nov.6. Tickets $46-59 Information: 215-985-0420 or www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org