John Logan’s two-person play, “Red,” which spotlights the legendary Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, is set a decade before the notoriously prickly painter committed suicide in 1970. The drama, which opens at the Mark Taper Forum on Aug. 12, begins as Rothko (Alfred Molina) has accepted a hefty commission to create a series of murals for the swanky Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s iconic Seagram Building. He intends his luminous, contemplative paintings to transform the space into a “temple,” while his initially timid new assistant, Ken (Jonathan Groff), grows bolder and insists that the work will merely serve as décor for pricey boozing and dining.
Rothko ultimately can’t stomach the project; he changes his mind upon visiting the elitist watering hole where, he says, he felt “underdressed … fat … too goddamn Jewish for this place.” He promptly cancels his commission, returns his paycheck and eventually donates nine of the murals — transcendent floating color fields in russet and darker hues — to the Tate Gallery in London. A year later, Rothko slashed open his arms with a razor in his New York studio and died at the age of 66. “His body was discovered the same day that the Seagram murals arrived at the Tate, which shocked everyone,” Molina, 59, said before a recent rehearsal at the Taper. “You can see a correlation between his evolving [palette] and his downward spiral,” Molina added. “As he says in the play, his great fear is that “ ‘one day the black will swallow the red.’ ”
The Tony Award-winning play presents a series of acerbic arguments between Rothko and his protégé, who spar about art versus commerce, Pop Art versus Abstract Expressionism while revealing their respective traumatic pasts. Rothko describes how as a Jewish child in Russia he saw “the Cossacks cutting people up and tossing them into pits,” and how at 10, his family moved “to Portland, [Ore., and] lived in the ghetto alongside all the other thinky, talky Jews. I was Marcus Rothkowitz then,” he adds. “My first dealer said he had too many Jewish painters on the books. So Marcus Rothkowitz became Mark Rothko.”
The play includes several brief but telling anecdotes about Rothko’s heritage: “His Jewish background was elemental to everything about him,” said Logan, who also wrote the films “Gladiator” and “Sweeney Todd.”
It certainly contributed to Rothko’s sense of himself as an outsider, even an outcast, in both social and professional circles, Molina said. When Rothko was a child, his immigrant mother dressed him in quaint garb she saw in a satirical cartoon that she had misinterpreted as the height of fashion for an American boy. “So when he arrived in the United States he looked ludicrous, and consequently was mocked and laughed at by his peers,” Molina said. “This sense of being ‘other’ influenced him completely; he was a bit of a loner all his life, and that fed into the way he worked as an artist. He was part of a generation of painters but he was never part of them in any kind of emotional way.”
Rothko’s sense of ‘otherness’ intensified when he left Portland’s Jewish ghetto for Yale University in 1921, when institutionalized anti-Semitism flourished and “to be a Jew at an Ivy League school was to be an alien,” Logan said. “At one point Rothko wrote of feeling like Caliban,” Logan added, referencing the scorned character in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” “That gave him a sense of isolation, but also of empowerment and a commitment to his vision, because he in no way ever tried to blend in with anyone for any reason. He was the least assimilated human being in every regard — as an artist, a husband, a Jew.”
And yet his childhood experiences continued to haunt him. “It’s too glib to say that because he saw tragedy and oppression in his youth, therefore his paintings were filled with tragedy; and yet they are,” Logan said. “In the first scene in the play, when his assistant is trying to find the right word to describe the paintings, Rothko corrects him by saying they’re ‘tragic.’ It’s a word he goes back to repeatedly in the play; it’s like the word ‘blood’ in ‘Macbeth.’ He’s constantly emphasizing that a great painting must have ‘tragedy in every brushstroke.’ And this is man who 10 years after the events of the play committed suicide, so all this ‘colors’ — if you’ll forgive the expression — the painting that is Rothko, or at least the Rothko that I created.”
Logan was inspired to write “Red” after viewing the Seagram Murals at the Tate, where he was struck by “their somberness, their anguish,” he said. “I walked in, and you almost can’t breathe because there’s such a force in the room.”
For Molina, the draw was Logan’s script, which the play’s director, Michael Grandage, slipped to him over drinks several years ago in New York. “I went off to a little bar in Midtown and read it, and by page 10 or 11 I knew I had to do it,” the actor said, sporting the shaved head he wears to portray Rothko. “It wasn’t a ‘yesss’ moment, but rather a sinking feeling, because you see all your other [professional] options falling away. But Rothko is the role of a lifetime, a chance to play a man who lives in extremes, including extremes of intellectual rigor and impatience with anyone lacking that kind of rigor.”
One word that Ken uses to describe Rothko’s work is “rabbinical,” which references that rigor “and also the whole tradition of talmudic study where every nuance is analyzed for meaning and some kind of enlightenment,” Molina said.
The actor is the son of an Italian mother and a Spanish father who relocated to England: “I’ve always been attracted to stories involving immigration — people who have left one world to go to another,” he said. As a child, his own nickname was “Spaghetti,’ and even at drama school he found himself relegated to playing Eastern European thugs, but took advantage of his penchant for accents to build a diverse career. “I’ve done some good Jews,” he said, citing his portrayal of Tevye in the 2004 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.” “I’ve done some good Arabs. You might say I do good foreign.”
Rothko and his assistant prime an entire canvas onstage, splattering each other with blood-colored paint. “The paintings are like a third character in the play,” Molina said.
Reviews from “Red’s” Broadway production laud Molina’s volcanic portrayal of Rothko, but he wouldn’t have wanted to meet the real artist one-on-one.
“He would have crushed me,” Molina said. “But I play him with great joy, because for once in my life I can be the crusher, not the ‘crushee.’ I get a chance to roar, and it’s marvelous.”
For tickets and more information, visit centertheatregroup.org.