As imagined by John Logan in his Tony-winning drama "Red" and portrayed by the galvanizing Alfred Molina, painter Mark Rothko is a man of fierce convictions and fiery words. His opinions about art are delivered like biblical proclamations, spoken in the Old Testament cadences of a burning bush.
As he holds forth on the nobility of highbrow ambition and the ignominy of commercial frivolity you might momentarily think you've stumbled into a town hall on the fate of the Museum of Contemporary Art. In fact, you are at the Mark Taper Forum, where this sensational production from London's Donmar Warehouse (and later Broadway) has comfortably taken up residence.
This intelligently wrought two-character drama, featuring Jonathan Groff (heartthrob of "Spring Awakening") in the role of Ken, Rothko's new assistant and wet-behind-the-ears protégé, unfolds in Rothko's New York studio in the late 1950s. Rothko has accepted a highly lucrative commission to paint a series of abstract murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue.
Guilt, misgivings and all manner of tsuris ensue for the Russian Jewish immigrant born Marcus Rothkowitz, who though he has Americanized his name has preserved a questing Talmudic reverence for ultimate truth and meaning. The problem is that nowhere in his aesthetic philosophy is there a place for creating art expressly to hang in a posh dining room, in which the rich and powerful wheel and deal over foie gras and vintage Champagne.
As Rothko sees it, the spectator must collaborate with his canvases, which demand a level of interaction not required for representational painting. "A picture lives by companionship," he pronounces grandiosely. "It dies by the same token. It's a risky act to send it out into the world."
Indeed, Rothko at one point compares selling a picture to "sending a blind child into a room full of razor blades." So if treating art like a commodity is a form of torture for this aging lion of Abstract Expressionism, why has he accepted the $35,000 for what is in effect an interior design job?
This is the question that Ken, who has been on the receiving end of Rothko's rather bullying cultural education, will eventually pose. And it's one that the play wants to explore both in terms of Rothko's career, tragically ended by suicide in 1970, and in the larger story of the contemporary art world, which has come to resemble an outpost of Wall Street in these days of speculative bubbles.
But enfolded within this publicly important drama is a more private and emotionally resonant one involving two wounded men, who are simultaneously coveting and resisting a father-son relationship.
As a condition of his employment, Ken must understand that he is an assistant and nothing more. "I am not your rabbi, I am not your father, I am not your shrink, I am not your friend, I am not your teacher — I am your employer," Rothko emphasizes to Ken, before becoming all of these things almost against his will.
For a play that proceeds in such a commanding verbal manner, it's notable that the scene that is most eloquent about their relationship is devoid of dialogue. The two men, who have grown accustomed to each other's daily presence, prime a canvas with red paint, splattering themselves in the process as they crisscross each other in a communion that is nearly erotic in its sweaty closeness.
Molina, who was nominated for a Tony for his performance, drives the play with his titanic energy. Lending Rothko's bombast what might be called an Old World New York accent, he registers the depressive demons besetting an artist whose devotion to his work is in no small part a defense against despair and futility. Always hectoring, always correcting, always combating the ghost of his eclipsing friend Jackson Pollock, Molina's Rothko is utterly heartbreaking when, with a single gesture of his hand on Ken's chest, he acknowledges all that he feels yet cannot fix.
Groff traces the trajectory of Ken's journey from dewy-eyed diffidence to daring self-assertion with admirable clarity. Anger, quite naturally, is the route of his character's autonomy. If Groff isn't as convincing as Eddie Redmayne embodying Ken's traumatic back story — Redmayne won a Tony in the role — he is every bit as effective in revealing the delicate nuances of a young artist's desperate attachment to a flawed great man.
Michael Grandage, whose astonishingly lucidity as a director never fails to impress me, stages the play with the cleanest of lines on Christopher Oram's studio set, which is distinguished chiefly by the different canvases the actors hang at the start of a new scene.
Logan's drama is at times overstated, an inherent risk when dealing with a character as intellectually vociferous as Rothko. But it's remarkably unschematic in its handling of both the artistic and psychological subject matter.
Consider the play's title, a primary color symbolizing to Rothko a stand against encroaching blackness and hence a source of vitality but also serving as a vivid reminder of blood and human vulnerability. These dimensions of life and death are as entwined as art and money, order and chaos (another prevailing theme) and, of course, the emotional needs of fathers and sons.
"Red" invites us to ponder these shifting relationships with the same open-minded engagement that Rothko's pulsating masterpieces expect and deserve.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m.Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 9.
Price: $20 to $100 (Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Contact: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org/Red
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission