Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Review: RED

RED is an engrossing play about big ideas and the 20th c. titan of Abstract Expression Mark Rothko. A handsome production, Toby Zinman found it softer than it should be, not as forceful and uncompromising as it might have been.

Review: RED


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

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About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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