"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," the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko warns his new assistant in the first scene of John Logan's Tony Award-winning bio-drama "Red," now at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. "I am your employer."
It's 1958, and Rothko (Mark Harelik) is working on a lucrative commission: a series of murals for the new Seagram Building on Park Avenue. He needs an assistant to mix paint, stretch canvases and run errands. Unlike certain bohemian artists — for example, the late Jackson Pollock, Rothko's friend and rival — Rothko keeps banker's hours: 9 to 5, five days a week.
To the wide-eyed Ken (Paul David Story), an art-school graduate who idolizes Pollock, the assistant job sounds at first, perhaps, disappointingly cut-and-dried.
But they're in an art studio, and there's plenty of red paint at hand, as well as liquor, not to mention creative ambitions and fears and, crushing down on all of it, the legacy of Western art. And what is an employer, anyway, but a rabbi, father, shrink, friend and teacher all rolled into one? Things are bound to get messy.
Rothko (born Marcus Rothkowitz), who was already a character in real life, wins over the audience from the first moment of Logan's highly entertaining rendering. He's the kind of boss nobody wants to work for in life nor can resist onstage: a pontificating, dyspeptic bully with a vast and tender ego. Alfred Molina originated the role in London, won a Tony Award for it on Broadway, and performed it at the Mark Taper Forum in 2012, wringing adjectives like "galvanic" and "dauntless" from critics all along the way.
Under the direction of David Emmes, Harelik makes this demanding part his own. His portrayal gives Rothko, beneath his mood swings and sardonic put-downs, a watchful but skittish kindness; he appears ever-alert to the possibility of connection. While it's fun to watch him roar, what keeps us on the edge of our seats is the hope that Ken will locate the prince trapped inside the beast.
Logan, though, isn't as interested in Ken, whose job for much of the play is to be any or all of us, a blank canvas. He's a painter, who secretly longs to show his boss his work, and he has a lurid back story with purely symbolic relevance. Over his two years with Rothko, Ken masters the job — the play's exhilarating climax is a scene in which, to the strains of classical music, the two men wordlessly and athletically prime a canvas together — and builds the courage to challenge the old titan. When he does, the exchange has the thrill and embarrassment of every titan-challenging scene in the movies and in our dreams. But even though Story is appealing in the role (Eddie Redmayne won a Tony for it, and Jonathan Groff played it in L.A.), the character feels incomplete.
"Red" has charms that atone for this flaw: its heady yet accessible dialogue and its turpentine-soaked setting, both of which this production brings vividly to life. Ralph Funicello's authentic set is splashed with red and stacked with lovely reproductions of Rothko's works. They may look like fuzzy red rectangles at first glance; 90 minutes later, they're shimmering doorways into a new world.
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Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 21
Tickets: $22 and up
Info: (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org