For all its highfalutin discourse — on abstract expressionism, Dionysus vs. Apollo, the pernicious advance of pop art — the most engrossing moment of Arena Stage’s immensely enjoyable “Red” comes when the two actors dip their brushes into buckets and paint.
The activity in which the superbly matched Edward Gero and Patrick Andrews engage, in point of fact, is priming a canvas half again as tall as the two of them. The priming becomes primal. As the classical music on a phonograph swells, the painters spring into action, splashing on the liquid in great, rhapsodic strokes. The exercise takes on both a spiritual intensity and an almost sexual energy — a characteristic spotlighted when, in the aftermath of the explosive exertion, the panting Gero lights up a cigarette.
The pleasure of the interlude, as constructed by playwright John Logan and conducted by director Robert Falls, is in the way it conveys the full, symbiotic immersion of the characters: Gero’s Mark Rothko, the vain, abrasive creator of all those mesmerizing canvases of migrating mood and undulating color, and Andrews’s Ken, a composite of the assistants who toiled in Rothko’s Manhattan studio throughout his working life, which ended in suicide in 1970.
The sequence eloquently reminds us of a joy we rarely get to see: the artist consumed by the everyday physical demands of his work, an act by which the intellectual and emotional weight of his other concerns — his reputation, his hubris, his self-doubt — is for the moment banished. It looks like so much fun, such a terrific workout, that we all want to get up on the stage of the Kreeger Theater and splatter primer onto the canvas with them. It helps, too, that set designer Todd Rosenthal has conceived of Rothko’s work space as such a vigorously messy environment for genius, and the lighting by Keith Parham puts so luminous an accent on the radiant dimensions of the painter’s works-in-progress.
The convulsive frenzy in which the actors complete the priming is a reflection of other powerful forces at work in “Red,” Logan’s portrait of Rothko in the late 1950s, when the painter was in the midst of one of his most important commissions, a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant occupying the bottom floors of a landmark of 20th-century architecture, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building.
How authentically Logan has framed the issues of “Red” is a matter better left to the art world’s keener arbiters. What can be easily deduced from Falls’s production — an excellent successor to the Tony-winning version directed by Michael Grandage and starring Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne — is that Rothko has been translated for the stage into a marvelous character. Tyrannical, bombastic, narcissistic, he has a bedside manner you wouldn’t wish on the most cravenly ambitious intern.
And yet, beyond the vision and the artistry, this Rothko redeems himself in a profound yearning to be tested, to discover whether he truly merits a place in the pantheon. Over the course of the play, performed without intermission, Rothko acknowledges anxiety over the pop-art movement that is supplanting abstract expressionism. Ken, for his part, pricks Rothko’s conscience, telling him the Four Seasons commission subverts his long-held values. In the final throes of the drama, after finally letting Rothko have it — decrying his paranoia, self-absorption and lack of generosity — the younger man says he expects now to be fired. “Fired?” the painter replies. “This is the first time you’ve existed.”
Gero, in owlish glasses and unsmiling demeanor, is the resonant embodiment of an uncompromising artist with an overdeveloped sense of grievance. He’s the advocate here for a rigorous, cerebral rationale for art and though it reeks of self-importance, it’s also to be admired. “A generation that does not aspire to seriousness, to meaning, is unworthy to walk in the shadow of those who have gone before,” Rothko instructs Ken. Out of Gero’s mouth, the words have an almost threatening edge — there’s a desperation in this artist’s pronouncements, a poignant need to shout over what he perceives as the noise of a community that’s beginning to turn away from him.
Ken is, in a sense, that community: He’s the voice of that emerging generation, one that sees the consumer culture as a suitable subject for art and won’t yield to Rothko’s definition of seriousness no matter how many tantrums he throws. Compact and muscular, with a gaze as stony as Gero’s, Andrews proves to be an ideal choice for Ken, who slowly uncovers his own reservoir of rage and strength. The actor skillfully negotiates the play’s thorniest narrative embellishment, the story of Ken’s traumatic childhood. In a lesser production, this confessional element might have pushed “Red” into mushier swampland. But the steel in Andrews’s affect keeps the sentimentality at bay.
Both the painter and his assistant know from pain; it’s as certain an ingredient in their work as the pigments they mix into the buckets. Maybe that helps explain why Rothko and his young employee find in the act of priming a canvas a cathartic common pursuit. They don’t simply aim to prime that canvas. They want to unleash the Furies on it.
by John Logan. Directed by Robert Falls. Set, Todd Rosenthal; costumes, Birgit Rattenborg Wise; lighting, Keith Parham; original composition and sound, Richard Woodbury. About 1 hour, 40 minutes. Through March 4 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Visit www.arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.