Jonathan Epstein and Thomas Leverton. Photo by Lanny Nagler
By John Logan
Directed by Tazewell Thompson
Cynical, angry artist Mark Rothko (Jonathan Epstein) hires a young idealistic assistant, Ken (Thomas Leverton) to work with him on his newest commission: a series of four murals to hang in the newly constructed Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan. A smart dialogue about painting and about American society unfolds with the teacher-student relationship transitioning. Ken's hopes that Rothko might be a friend, or even a mentor to replace the father he discovered murdered at a young age are dashed with every stroke of paint, however. The master's vision for companionship extends only to the relationship between the paintings. The end result is always the same for him: tragedy. Rothko is struggling with the futility of life and with putting his brilliance on the walls of a commercial enterprise where its full meaning of the color red might or might not be comprehended by the capitalists dining beneath it.
Epstein gives a nice portrait of the angry abstract impressionist. The dialogue is sharp and Rothko has us thinking not only about his complex character, but about the color red. We'll never look at the color the same way again – it's as complex in meaning, shade and infinite possibility as Rothko is. Set Designer Donald Eastman nicely creates the artist's world: a two-leveled, dark, brick-walled studio that shuts out the world Rothko is trying to avoid. Large canvas paintings dominate the set nicely lighted by Stephen Quandt.
There isn't any chemistry between the actors, so the portrait fails to glow with the full colors it might radiate if the elements blended together more. The famous scene from the 2010 Tony Award winning play, for example, where the two men feverishly paint a campus together, should look like a ballet as the men work with and around each other to create a pulsating red. Here, the men just appear to be quickly painting the canvas while Leverton (whose very clean-cut looks seem hard to buy for a young wannabe artist) bops up and down. The transition of Ken's character into a sort of mentor for Rothko also isn't fully realized as Tazewell allows stronger actor Epstein to dominate.
Jazz music (J. Hagenbuckle, sound design) used between scene changes often is too abrupt, taking us out of the mood of the play, rather than enhancing it.
RED runs at TheaterWorks Hartford, 233 Pearl St. through May 6. For tickets and information: 860-527-7838 or www.theatreworkshartford.org.