“I am here to stop your heart, do you understand?!” Mark Rothko thunders.
“To make you think. I am not here to paint pretty pictures.” Goodman Theatre’s season opener, “Red,” a Tony Award winner by playwright John Logan, is full of these great, dramatic lines that cut to the heart of why an artist creates. Directed by Goodman Artistic Director and Evanston resident Robert Falls, Edward Gero plays the abstract expressionist painter—and fiercely intellectual art theorist—Mark Rothko, a role that Alfred Molina performed on Broadway last year. Rothko’s young assistant, Ken, is played by the boyish Patrick Andrews.
But if it’s plot you’re after, you won’t find it here. All of the action takes place in Rothko’s New York studio in 1958, where he’s working on a series of paintings for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram Building. The quixotic and mercurial Rothko is torn being wanting to remain relevant in the art world and despising all commercialism. Ken, the eager apprentice, tests his knowledge of art and culture on Rothko, who, in his relentlessly egotistical and misanthropic manner, stomps on him (the same way he says he stomped on the Cubists with Abstract Expressionism). Without meaning to, Rothko learns more about his assistant’s tragic past, and the play slowly builds to a tempestuous climax, where Ken tells Rothko exactly what he thinks of him.
The lines about art are often breathtaking in their revelations. Rothko talks about how art is all about tragedy, and how he hopes viewers will approach his paintings. “These paintings deserve compassion,” he says. And later, he ruminates, “Selling a painting is like sending a blind child into a room full of razors.” While you might not leave with compassion for Rothko, you’ll certainly look differently upon his paintings.
“Red” runs an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission. It plays through October 30 at Goodman Theatre. For tickets, call 312-443-3800 or visit goodmantheatre.org.