Saturday, September 07, 2013

Rothko on stage

• Red, a play by John Logan, directed by caryn desai at International City Theatre, Long Beach, through September 15. 

IN LOS ANGELES for other reasons, we were able to see a friend, Tony Abatemarco, play the painter Mark Rothko in the demanding lead role of this serious, often intense two-man one-act play. In five scenes, running ninety minutes without an intermission, but so tense it felt like forty, Logan portrays the obsession, genius, and romanticism of the aging Abstract Expressionist confronting youth and a very different younger generation in the person of a young painter he has hired as a studio assistant.

I don't know enough about Rothko to know how faithful the action and dialogue are to any real events, but it all sounds credible. Ken, the young assistant, is hired to help Rothko with the celebrated canvases he painted for installation in the then-new Seagram Building, in the dining room of the equally celebrated  restaurant The Four Seasons. Rothko has begun his slide into an almost delusional, almost messianic belief in his own superhuman visionary myth, fueled by Nietzsche  and contempt.

Gradually, Ken realizes and formulates the central irony of the play: Rothko's infatuation with self and sublimity, which he thinks expresses the universal human condition, has in fact turned its back on community. Furthermore, in accepting his commission from Philip Johnson, who supervised the interiors for Mies van der Rohe's building, he was playing into the hands of an Establishment he preferred to reject, and his paintings would be rejected — or, worse, ignored — by the very bourgeoisie he wanted to browbeat with their transcendence. 

Finally, the play centers on the inevitable cycle of generations, the inescapable decline of any generation's individuality and greatness, its fated yielding to its successors. That, and mortality, symbolized — for symbolism is another thing this play is about — by Rothko's fear that the Black, latent though avoided in his paintings, will ultimately triumph over the Red.

All this sounds literary and abstract, but the lines and the architecture of the play are immediate and pressing, the pace and the interplay propulsive. I was glad, since he is a friend, to be utterly captivated by Abatemarco's portrayal, sardonic, brittle, pompous, angry, cruel, yet completely sympathetic. Patrick Stafford grew in the role of the assistant, as the role requires, ultimately to rise to near Abatemarco's level. The emotional and dramatic arc couldn't have been more effectively calibrated, I think; caryn desai's direction was skilful to the point of invisibility; the play and its performers were the thing. 

JR Bruce's scenic design was credible; the paints and canvases were redolent, you'd have thought you were in a New York loft. All we needed, in the audience, was Scotch and cigarettes of our own to become Irascibles ourselves. It was memorable theater.

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