2-Man Cast Shares Stage With a Vivid Character
“I wonder,” Mark Rothko muses, staring at one of his canvases. “Do you think they’ll ever forgive me?”
“They’re only paintings,” Ken, his assistant, answers dispassionately.
But the artworks are so much more than that in “Red,” John Logan’s two-man Broadway show that includes that exchange.
“They are the other character,” said Alfred Molina, who portrays the Abstract Expressionist painter. “They’re referred to constantly. The subject matter of the play is their very existence.”
“Those paintings are so inscrutable and have such a powerful emotional content,” he added.
The drama, which opens at the Golden Theater on Thursday, revolves around an episode in Rothko’s life in the late 1950s, when the architects Ludwig Mies van der Roheand Philip Johnson commissioned him to paint murals for the Four Seasons, the fashionable new restaurant in the Seagram Building.
A large abstract canvas is center stage from the start. The rectangular shape outlined in deep red that dominates the painting, a copy of “Red on Maroon,” will probably seem unfamiliar to those who have seen Rothkos in American museums. The painting was one of a group that the artist originally conceived for the Four Seasons but refused to deliver, finding himself appalled by the restaurant’s clientele. He ended up giving nine of them to the Tate Gallery in London in 1969, a year before he committed suicide.
“Very often plays about artists are cursed,” Mr. Molina said one afternoon last week, sipping coffee at the Upper West Side hotel he is calling home during the run. “But what makes ‘Red’ so unique is that here you actually experience the making of the art. You see the paint being mixed, the frame being built, the canvas being stretched, everything being prepped. It creates more of an intensity.”
The set designer, Christopher Oram, said that getting the look of the paintings correct required a great deal of research, but that he knew the Seagram Rothkos in the Tate’s permanent collection from years of museum visits.
“They were in a special room,” he said in a telephone interview from London. “It was an extraordinary space with very low lighting,” which is how Rothko wanted them seen. (The paintings were recently on view at the Tate’s outpost in Liverpool, where Mr. Oram and the actors went to see them.)
By perusing the Tate’s archives and reading several biographies, he also pieced together how the artist worked, and he created onstage the scrappy, insular world of Rothko’s Manhattan studio, a former gymnasium in the Bowery. Mr. Oram reproduced every detail down to the pulley system Rothko used to hoist canvases, the music he played while he worked (Mozart and Haydn, among others) and the 1950s Chock full o’ Nuts cans used to mix the paint. The smell of paint even greets theatergoers as they take their seats.
Mr. Oram sought close but not exact matches for the shades of the Tate canvases. Instead he came up with different recipes of pigments and glazes that deliberately change, along with the lighting, so that the black and red become more or less pronounced as the power balance shifts between Rothko and his assistant, played by Eddie Redmayne.
“There are a different cocktail of dyes and paints for different scenes,” Mr. Oram said.
“Red” first opened in December at the Donmar Warehouse, and for the Broadway transfer, the pigments were imported from London.
“Each batch of paint is made fresh every day,” Mr. Oram said. “It’s like a chemistry set; it’s made early in the day so it can cool down and have the right consistency.”
That mattered in a crucial scene in which the two characters competitively prime a canvas onstage. As in a carefully choreographed dance, they heat up the red paint and pour it into two buckets. (To be sure that the paint never gets dangerously hot, cold water is placed in the buckets before the scene.) The actors then quickly paint the canvas red — Mr. Molina the top, and Mr. Redmayne the bottom — and in the process, themselves. It’s a powerful few minutes.
“We had to make sure we got the theatrical quality of it,” Mr. Molina said. “That dance, that sense of mood.”
They practiced a lot, using 10 or 11 canvases before getting it right. One problem for Mr. Molina that Rothko probably never had was “when the canvas dried onstage, it look streaky, and we couldn’t work out why,” he said. It turned out there was too much distance between the bucket and the top of the canvas; to compensate, he dips his brush in the paint more often than Mr. Redmayne.
Mr. Molina came to the part with no formal art history education. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Notting Hill section of London — “before Julia Robertsgot there,” he said — and attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London rather than a conventional university.
But Mr. Redmayne, who recently won an Olivier, one of Britain’s highest acting awards, for his performance in “Red” in London, went to Eton and studied art history at Cambridge.
For Mr. Molina, the challenge of playing a complicated character like Rothko has meant immersing himself in the artist’s world. He read everything about Rothko he could get his hands on, toured the Four Seasons to see where the paintings were to have hung and viewed every artwork mentioned in the play, including Matisse’s “Red Studio” at the Museum of Modern Art (a poster of it hangs in his dressing room), Michelangelo’s Medici Library in Florence and Caravaggio’s “Conversion of Saul” in Rome. He even made a day trip to Washington last week to see the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection and the Rothkos on view at the National Gallery of Art.
“After seeing the canvases in Washington yesterday, already there are lines in the play jumping into my head,” Mr. Molina said. “I’m now informed with something different.”
But he cautioned: “The last thing the audience wants to see is your homework. Hopefully, on some level, you’re just soaking it up, so it becomes part of you. I’m trying to embody him.”
He added of Rothko: “He was so complex. When he rages against the world, against Ken, the rage isn’t just anger, that rage is passion.”
“Rivera’s art was so much more narrative,” Mr. Molina said. “There were no mysteries. Although I loved it, I never got emotional over it.”
“But with Rothko,” he added, “I feel incredibly proprietary and defensive. And I don’t know why.