At first blush, “Red’’ seems like an art history lecture dressed up to look like drama. But in the hands of Thomas Derrah, and under the deft direction of David R. Gammons, SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production quickly becomes a suspenseful story with life-and-death consequences.
The play follows a fictionalized Mark Rothko, struggling to make paintings that engage viewers’ emotions at a time when collectors are interested in art as pleasant decoration. The action takes place over a two-year period from 1958 to 1960, when Rothko has received a commission for a series of murals to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s new Seagram Building. The work is lucrative, and the Abstract Expressionist has convinced himself that with access to the entire room, he can create a temple for his art - a place where people with the “heart, patience, and capacity’’ can engage in a meaningful exchange with his paintings.
Playwright John Logan’s Tony Award-winning two-hander opens with the arrival of Rothko’s new assistant, Ken (Karl Baker Olson), who will mix paint, stretch canvas, fetch supplies, and listen to this “titanic self-absorption of a man’’ expound on Nietzsche, Caravaggio, Matisse, and Jackson Pollock, and dismiss the new Pop art movement as superficial. “I am not your teacher,’’ he tells Ken. Then Rothko goes on to educate the younger man about mythology, drawing Ken into a debate on the merits of Apollonian and Dionysian symbolism in his work, and discussing the power of color and its associations with life and death.
The intellectual exercise is fascinating, but Derrah makes it even more compelling. He delivers a magnetic performance so full of detail, so rich in body language, it’s impossible to take our eyes off him as he prepares to prime a canvas - shaking out the brushes, inhaling deeply, looking at the canvas, then looking away, as classical music swells on Rothko’s record player. After all the talking and thinking and drinking and smoking, making the art requires an intense, and often short-lived, burst of energy.
Given Derrah’s extraordinary performance as R. Buckminster Fuller last season at the American Repertory Theater, it shouldn’t be surprising that he is able to humanize and make vulnerable even the eccentric Rothko, but Derrah’s nuanced performance is never less than breathtaking. Director Gammons conducts the action like a dance, and even in stillness, Derrah communicates volumes.
Olson has the thankless role of Rothko’s foil, yet he gives Ken a surprising grace and a fair amount of complexity. Although Ken arrives as just another young, ignorant artist - to judge him by Rothko’s standards - at play’s end he has asserted his own ideals and convictions, and we can’t help but feel encouraged about his future.
Logan occasionally dips into a bag of cliches (including giving Ken a tragic past) to get through some tricky transitions, but Derrah and Olson keep the story rooted in one man’s attempt to capture the ephemeral on canvas.
“Red’’ offers a captivating insight into the creative process, but more than that, it illuminates an artist’s need for an audience and the terrifying vulnerability that creates.