Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Painting, but not priming, the town Red

See this?  Mark Rothko rarely did this.
Local reviewers have called John Logan's Red (at SpeakEasy Stage through Feb. 4) "a great work of art," "a masterpiece," and "a play of ideas" that's "intellectually and emotionally riveting."

What's usually meant by such phrases, of course, is that the show in question is either a vehicle or a lecture. So it's no surprise that Red is a little of both - but at least  Logan's two-hander about Mark Rothko is a pretty solid vehicle, and a fairly diverting lecture - the playwright has compiled a (somewhat inaccurate) set of Art History notes for people who didn't take that course in college but like to pretend they did - and then transliterated it into a smoothly convincing facsimile of dialogue between Rothko and an assistant who's basically an amalgam of everybody else in the artist's life.

In other words, Logan has done a great service to cocktail party hostesses everywhere.

Still, the play is hardly a masterpiece or a great work of art.  Please, don't be ridiculous.  It is, instead, a simulation of same for people who can't tell the difference between craft and art.

But does that difference matter anymore?  Probably not.  Certainly a lot of people these days think it doesn't; sometimes it seems I'm the only person left alive who does.  (But then it's my blog, isn't it.)  I am intrigued, however, by the SpeakEasy production in a certain meta-cultural way.

Let me explain.  The play itself is clearly a commercial construct with pretensions to discuss Big Ideas; which is fair enough; move over, A Man for All Seasons! Broadway has always trafficked in this kind of thing.  Still, a funny conceptual wrinkle arises when you apply tried-and-true Broadway formulae to the central topic in Red, which I take to be the rejection of the commodification of art.

That's right; this is a commodity that attacks other commodities.  And that's interesting, isn't it.  I mean it's one thing to make a boulevard hit out of the six wives of Henry VIII; it's something else again to make commercial hay out of non-commercialism. For if you were to do that, shouldn't you of necessity find yourself staring into a vortex of mirrors reflecting nothing but themselves, kind of like Charles Isherwood and Ben Brantley in conversation?

For make no mistake: Red is thoroughly a commercial commodity, and a good one; you can feel in its cadences a certain pride in how carefully a machine-tooled product it really is (Logan is a highly-paid Hollywood screenwriter for a reason).  It works, it holds you; its beats all land with a crisp little snap.  If you're utterly ignorant of Rothko, you may find yourself saying "Wow, I never thought of that!," or something along those lines, and then, yes, remembering to talk about Rothko at your next cocktail party.

But somehow Logan never gets around to pointing out that this kind of thing, and those kinds of goals, are precisely the kind of thing its subject, Mark Rothko, would have despised - and in fact does despise, repeatedly and at length, over the course of Red.  In short, this play is its own target. It's one long sneer at itself. The script's climax even revolves around Rothko's rejection of commercialism (when he refuses a commission from creepy old Philip Johnson to supply some fabulous décor for the Four Seasons).  And most of the dialogue (it's highbrow banter, really) revolves around splenetic denunciations of the marketable, the sellable, the bankable, the populist and the popular.

And yet Logan tossed all this off between screenplays for Rango and Star Trek: Nemesis.

You see the problem?  In what possible cultural frame can something like Red exist?

We're in such a frame, of course (obviously), which makes the question kind of piquant, I suppose.
And I have to admit that a theatre production - even one of Shakespeare or Beckett - has to be marketed somehow.  You gotta have a gimmick.  You gotta get those butts in seats, which means explaining arty stuff in a way that the critics can understand it.

Yet in the case of Red, the age-old conflict between moral luster and filthy lucre extends right down into the script itself, into questions of form vs. content, and the juxtaposition seems particularly jarring and bald.  Perhaps as a result, the original production, from the Donmar Warehouse (which I caught in New York) seemed almost over-concerned with tip-toeing around the internal contradiction at the heart of the text.  Most of its theatrical effects were subdued, even muted, in an attempt to conceal the basic hamminess of the set-up - and lead actor Alfred Molina insinuated a kind of magisterial mystery into his impersonation of Rothko.  You got the impression the production's conceit was that a deep experience, with its own integrity, could be accessible through the play without being necessarily compromised by the play. Red itself didn't aspire to the depth of Rothko's work - it was simply pointing you toward that work.

Okay.  This didn't completely convince me, but it was okay.  The SpeakEasy production, however, is solid ham through and through, and ups the commercial ante on the script in every possible way - only in a mode of innocent superficiality, I have to admit; you almost wonder if director David R. Gammons and his team realize that they're doing Red: The Musical!, only without any songs. Star Thomas Derrah turns Rothko into a bitchy diva, and as his assistant "Ken," Karl Baker Olson only seems to exist to lob his many star serves back over the conversational net.  Meanwhile director Gammons studs the show with grandiose, "great-man" lighting effects and moments of amusingly solemn stillness (below), even as a doom-y soundtrack cranks up repeatedly with multiplex-style emotional cues. Thus, even as Rothko rants about Nietzche, and the birth of tragedy, and death, we feel we're constantly being massaged by attendants; it's kind of like having a catharsis at a spa.

Hmmm . . . maybe it needs more . . . red . . .
Of course insofar as Red gets a few people to ponder question of recent artistic history, I suppose it ain't all bad.  Although playwright Logan certainly plays fast and loose with certain salient facts.  As I recall the Nietzche-Birth-of-Tragedy theory was first applied to the phase of Rothko's art before the famous "multiforms" (you know, the less successful, less famous stuff). And a central sequence showing Rothko and his assistant "priming" a canvas (at top) is a little sketchy as biography, for as is rather well known, Rothko often didn't do that, which is why so many of his canvases are in such poor shape today.  (And well before Warhol, there were suspicions that Rothko was sometimes using latex paint bought at the hardware store - you know, where Dionysos and Apollo like to shop.)  Of course maybe, as my partner joked, Logan was just being "discreet" about all that - for after all, sloppy craftsmen don't make good tragic heroes.

But Logan is "discreet" about other things, too.  As I mentioned, the climax of the play revolves around Rothko's famous Four Seasons commission from architect Philip Johnson.  But Logan deletes any reference to Johnson's notorious anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies. For make no mistake, the Harvard GSD grad was the genuine article: Johnson used his family money to organize a fascist party in the U.S., thrilled in person to Hitler's Nuremberg rallies, penned a rave for Mein Kampf, and even traipsed after the Nazi army into Poland, writing that watching Warsaw burn was "a stirring spectacle." Always as practical as he had to be, Johnson later sublimated his fascist sympathies into the strict regimentation of German modern architecture - but he remained notorious for anti-Semitic remarks and jokes for much of his life.

Over to Rothko, the Jewish abstract expressionist!  But Rothko's relationship to his Jewishness is a little complicated; born in Russia (as Marcus Rothkowitz), his family dodged the pogroms while he was a child - so perhaps it's no surprise that later, alarmed by the rise of fascism in the U.S. (thanks in part to Philip Johnson!) he shortened his name, at his own admission, to elide his Jewish heritage. Logan nods to this episode, but effectively distorts it, which is a little odd. And the very idea of the Jewish Rothko working for a crypto-Nazi like Johnson is ripe with dramatic irony - the relationship must have been seething, and surely Johnson's reputation played a part in Rothko's ultimate rejection of the Four Seasons offer; but Logan daintily pirouettes around the whole topic.

And why?  Perhaps because Johnson was gay (like this playwright)?  I'm not going to speculate about that, but I think it's worth noting that the rift between Rothko and the artists who "killed off" Abstract Expressionism - which Logan likewise treats at length - also roughly aligned with sexual preference, and once again Logan doesn't mention it; Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg were all gay or bisexual, as were other leading lights in the rising pop and conceptual New York scene.  The doomed, phallo-centric nobility of Rothko, the macho Pollock, and their expressionist ilk was losing cultural traction, and Rothko knew it.  The attitudes that would eventually lead to organizations like, well, SpeakEasy Stage, were already in the ascendant.

Which makes it all the weirder that the SpeakEasy production is so gay - I mean, not only are most of the guys associated with the show gay, but the whole production (perhaps inevitably?) feels vaguely operatic and slightly camp.  Karl Baker Olson's assistant arrives seemingly dressed for a SpeakEasy audition in art-nerd attire, and Derrah's Rothko lounges with a smoking cigarette when he isn't prowling the stage like Margo Channing, hungry for Eve Harrington's blood.  There's a deep irony here, I think, that SpeakEasy may not even be aware of; for the company itself is hardly focused on tragedy (please, don't mention Next Fall); The Divine Sister and Xanadu are more its metier. If Rothko's positions became popular again, to put it bluntly, SpeakEasy would be sunk.

So, what can I say except - the irony is really piling up around this show!  We have a Hollywood hack writing a valentine to a doomed Abstract Expressionist - only notice he feels the story is more appropriate to the stage than the screen, because . . . well because the stage still has some tattered intellectual prestige, some artsy je ne sais quoi - at least as seen from L.A., I guess.  (And what better way to boost your profile with Martin Scorsese - for whom Logan wrote Hugo - than to dabble with the stage?)  Yet it lands in the lap of . . . SpeakEasy.  Hmmm.

So when Logan lambastes the "younger generation" (I guess that means you, millennials!) for not aspiring to the heights of genuine art, you have to wonder what he thinks of his own career.  (Or what his ideas of the theatre are really worth.)  Or is Red meant as a kind of melancholy shrug rather than a faux call to arms, an almost-fond farewell not only to heterosexual hegemony, but also to a dead mode of integrity that everybody hopes stays dead?  Is that why the critics love it - because it is so obviously not what it claims to be?  Oh, I don't know, and I don't care.  The whole thing is really just too silly.  For God's sake bring on Xanadu.


  1. Tom: As one of those other reviewers, I most definitely did not consider Red a masterpiece (I only get to write my headlines on my own blog), and while I appreciated that Logan at least demonstrates that he understands The Birth of Tragedy better than 99% of the people who pretend to have read it, I found Red terribly flawed-- for the simple fact that the character of Ken is utterly two-dimensional and so every stage interaction lacks any dramatic stakes (I said as much in my review.) Fact is that the strongest writing in the play is almost invariably made up of quotations from Rothko's own writings or from quotes attributed to him by his contemporaries.

    I did however, enjoy Derrah's performance, and felt that it was one of the stronger performances I've seen him do in quite some time.

  2. I don't deny Derrah is a very facile performer. It's just that his very ability, deployed against a rather facile text, makes Rothko himself look superficial. But then it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone involved in this production that eking out every drop of entertainment from this material might, in the end, be the wrong idea, that maybe a theatre piece about challenging art should be a little bit challenging, too. I understand that everybody meant well; but sometimes SpeakEasy's slickness works against the company's best intentions. Indeed, I sometimes wondered whether Karl Baker Olson's portrayal was intended to be seen as a kind of time-traveler, sent back from SpeakEasy's happy, ironic ranks to query the kind of theatre that came before it. But that interpretation would really only work with a very different take on Rothko, one that did justice to old-fashioned modes of self-destruction rather than simply render them as articulate pique. I speak this as someone who in some very dark hours spent a good deal of time in the Rothko Chapel down in Houston, gazing into this artist's bleak last works (completed by assistants like Ken, as the artist himself was too weak at that point to even paint). I'm not about to pretend that Rothko was Titian or Rembrandt, but there's a tragic dimension to his best work that this production never touched.

  3. The play works on a superficial level precisely because of Logan's superficiality as a dramatist. He does a very nice job of remixing actual Rothko quotes into a series of speeches, but if Karl Baker Olsen it's not from the lines Logan feeds him: Logan can't write for a character that he has to make up from whole cloth, apparently-- and his whole story about finding his parents' murdered bodies rang so hollow and had no bearing on anything the character says or does in any other scene that I half wondered if in between scenes Ken hadn't confessed to Rothko, "Oh, I made that all up so that maybe you would like me more, sorry for the deception."

    I'm also a big Rothko fan-- not from the Houston Chapel (I've never been to Texas), though, but from the substantial collection at the National Gallery.

  4. "...but if Karl Baker Olsen it's not from the lines Logan feeds him.."

    Over zealous reply. That should have read "...but if Karl Baker Olsen leaves an impression it's not from the lines Logan feeds him..."

  5. I'm glad you brought up that point, btw, which I didn't cover, about most of Rothko's lines coming from the artist himself. To some, this is a mark of authenticity. Others could construe it as a lack of imagination. Certainly some evocation of what might lie beneath the self-proclamations of an historical figure has traditionally been considered the playwright's job.