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April 16, 2010

What's wrong with "Red"?

The dust-up over the Pulitzer award in drama has me feeling a little like my mother, who was a reflexive changer of subjects. But I never saw "Next to Normal," and I did recently see "Red."

Wonderful acting, wonderful sets. Then why did something I hoped to like leave me feeling lukewarm?

Reviewers have mainly been generous toward this play. Yet art critic Roberta Smith, whom I was glad to see writing about it, said that as soon as its two characters began talking, she longed for an ejector seat. (For the record, I do occasionally read writers other than Roberta Smith.) This, of course, is a problem, since with drama, talking is pretty much the big idea.

Briefly, "Red" delves into the life of Mark Rothko at the time when he was preparing a suite of paintings for New York's Four Seasons restaurant. The drama unfolds between him and his young assistant, Ken.

Alfred Molina was a suitably volcanic Rothko; Eddie Redmayne ably bundled the longings and self-doubt of the overawed apprentice.

Yet much of the time it was like watching two gears that only occasionally mesh. While author John Logan might suggest that this was the point, it does not make for satisfying drama. It didn't help that Ken was saddled with an over-the-top backstory, which came driving into the play with all the finesse of a Zamboni.

It was as though Logan could not quite decide whether the play was about Rothko and his demons (Rothko vs. Rothko), or about the oedipal drama between a young painter and his artistic father. Watching these two move canvases about the set, and at one point join in a ballet of underpainting, was mesmerizing. But their arguments about art and meaning had an awfully familiar ring.

If I sound unsympathetic to Logan, I am not. He set himself an extremely difficult task, namely to get at the preoccupations of a great painter. These, unfortunately, do not yield much to language.

Painterly careers, however, do. I was reminded of this the next day, when I joined my artist husband on an expedition to a Brooklyn shop. The proprietor was a master known for creating exquisite paints. My husband wanted a tube of white only, but as the exquisite paint master put him through a Q&A, it felt as though we were still at the play, or rather in it, subjected to the imperious speechifying of Rothko.

The shop itself was wondrous, windowless and nest-like. Because there was so much to look at, I at first listened with just half an ear. The shelves were neatly stocked with jars of dazzling pigment. On one wall, in rows, were swatches of sample color. I kept looking at the reds especially, such beautiful reds, everything from tomato to maroon.

Eventually I noticed that what had begun as a technical discussion was turning into a mauling. The paint master was pushing every button known to insecure artists everywhere.

For starters, the guy who just left? He gets a million dollars for a painting.

And what kind of paint was my husband using now? Ah, really? Student paint.

Was my husband a New York artist? (Here it was all I could do not to interject, "No. Like Gerhard Richter is not one." But I held my peace.)

With just the white, the paint master was sure, my husband would be wasting his money, wasting the product. My husband stuck to his guns though, finally procuring what he had come for. As we fled, it seemed to me a younger artist might have wept.

We calmed ourselves with cupcakes in Chelsea, decided to skip the lurid Otto Dix show at the Neue Galerie. It rained the whole way back to New England. "Red" left only a modest impression on him, but the white paint, my husband says, is all that he had hoped.

April 16, 2010 11:30 AM | | Comments (3)

3 Comments

MJ

Lovely. As always you hit some kind of sweet spot for tone and style, and what else is there to voice? A wonderful voice speaking to us here. Droll, yet not jocose. This is, at bottom, serious stuff. Nevertheless, you manage it with a light touch. Caught somewhere between the unbearable lightness of being and, well maybe, Tolstoy. He was at the opposite end of the scale of course, for self-effacement. Thank you for this. It's quite wonderful and I get the strong sense you don't know it.

My wife (Laurie Fendrich) and I--both painters, both abstract painters--went out to dinner and to see "Red" as her birthday present. (Yeah, I know I got to eat and watch the play, too, but that's what she wanted.) "Red" dazzled us while we were in our seats: an hour and a half of Puffy's Tavern artists' histrionics (or of grad-school critique melodrama) actually made watchable. A miracle!

But the next morning--the earliest advisable time for any serious contemplation of an art event--most of the play's import had evaporated. (This was in contrast to watching a DVD of 50-year-old English comedy, "School for Scoundrels," that I thought was the height of wit when I was an undergraduate, finding it wincingly broad and primitive as I watched the replay, but then, the next morning, noticing that its social-comment gravitas had settled rather well.)

The reason for "Red's" fading overnight to a dusty pink is, I think, the archness of the invention of the pas de deux with the studio assistant in order to externalize, to make perceivable by a theater audience, what is essentially an interior matter whose thrashing out would actually seem quite dull to an outside observer. In terms of physical action and out-loud dialogue, painters are essentially small shopkeepers, not much different than cobblers. Accurately portrayed, studio goings-on don't offer much opportunity for good theater.

There's an old piece by S.J. Perelman (which, alas, I cannot find in any of my books or online) in which the protagonist, a painter, is put upon by an acquaintance, a vulgar Hollywood movie producer, to be a technical consultant for a biopic on, I think, John Singer Sargent. The movie stars a dumb hunk who knows absolutely nothing about what artists actually do in their studios. At one point during a visit to the painter's studio, the producer asks outright what the painter does when he gets an idea. "I usually smite my forehead," the painter says sarcastically, "and shout 'Eureka!'" Neither did Rothko.

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