It is no knock on the fine production of Red at Arena Stage to say that if I have to watch one more show about an artist’s existential struggle, I’m going to cut an ear off. Art isn’t easy—I get it. But life isn’t easy, and recently—with producers serving up shows like Equivocation and You, Nero at Arena, The Habit of Art at Studio Theatre, even Billy Elliot and La Cage aux Folles at the Kennedy Center—it seems like theatermakers are more interested in the navels of the creative class than in the entire corpus of the rest of us.
As for Red: What takes John Logan’s study of Mark Rothko in crisis from the realm of biography and into the territory of drama is the way it ties the artist’s fears about his diminishing relevance to everyone’s fears about mortality—the way Rothko (a chilly, abrasive Ed Gero) struggles each day in the studio (and in his head) to keep the black on his massive canvases (and in his spirit) from engulfing the red. Easy metaphors? Yes and no. Rothko was a fiercely intellectual painter, and a passionately idealistic one, and Logan gives Gero the language to explain his process and his panics in plenty of detail.
He also gives him a hell of a foil in the character of Ken (wiry, wary Patrick Andrews), the studio assistant who listens, questions, and eventually challenges Rothko on everything from his philosophy to his technique. Young Turk beards Old Guard? Sure, but don’t think that’s not one of the play’s concerns, and Logan gives the theme both the time and the taut arguments to make it a worthy one.
The Goodman Theatre co-production, in Arena’s traditionalist Kreeger space, turns on a moment in which the two men attack a huge expanse of fresh canvas with the blood-red primer that will make it a suitable starting point for a new project. It’s a kinetic visualization of the collision of physical and rational, passionate and cerebral, instinct and discipline—there’s a certain amount of faff in the play about how the Appollonian and the Dionysian meet in the character of Rothko—and it’s a fairly thrilling coup de théâtre that leaves both men panting, spattered with red. Sexy beasts, those artists, at least when they’re getting on with the work.