On “Art” And Seeing “Red” AT Westport Country Playhouse

By Marlene S. Gaylinn

Two, short plays directed by Mark Lamos, are alternating performances at Westport Country Playhouse (WCP). Both works are about abstract expressionism, and both concern male relationships.

All art is subjective. It can mean different things to different people or have no meaning at all. To prove this point, WCP invites you to express what you think of a large painting that is displayed in its theatre lobby. It’s an abstract arrangement of multicolored dots of various sizes. Unless the dots are contrived to reveal hidden images, there are no correct answers to this puzzle because expressions and impressions are feelings!

Art For Art’s Sake?

As for the two plays, “Red” and “Art,” it is very hard to appreciate abstract expressionism because no one knows for sure what the artist originally had in mind during the creative process. To illustrate: Most recently this writer attended the re-opening of the British Art Museum. Casually leaning at the base of a life-size, ancient, Greek sculpture was an ordinary, black plastic, trash bag. We assumed it contained garbage from the refreshments that were being served. Wrong! On closer look, an engraved, brass plaque on the statue’s pedestal, credited the artist of the neatly tied “Garbage Bag.” The museum’s nearby security guards smiled at us and shrugged their shoulders. And so, like “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” one wonders if some abstract artists are trying to put something over on us?

To further explain the background of the plays, “Red” and “Art,” one might also consider that throughout history, the starving artist depended on kings and aristocrats for their patronage. In the U.S., except for the short-lived WPA and under funded, public arts commissions, it’s the very wealthy and their large corporations that can afford to support their favorite artists. These Rockefellers can drive up the value of an artist’s work and promote “what’s new,” simply because they can afford to commission work to match their living rooms, garden settings, or enhance corporate complexes like Pepsi Cola in Purchase, N.Y. Realistically, Art is a commodity and auction houses are akin to stock markets.

RED (The play)

“Red” by John Logan, is about an American, abstract artist named Marc Rothko, who was commissioned to do a series of paintings for “The Four Seasons Restaurant” in New York City. In the 1950’s, he was considered on a par with Jackson Pollock, Willem deKooning and others. The play’s depiction of the artist’s relationship with an apprentice artist may be fictitious. Never the less, the writer uses this theme setting to demonstrate the amount of emotional significance the artist places upon his work.

What we may see are just a couple of black lines or the outline of a square on a red background. However, like a writer struggling with a sentence, a painter can sometimes study his work for hours before applying a single stroke. What Rothko sees in his application of the color red, has references to personal experiences, which include his Russian/Jewish heritage. Russians are generally known to be outspoken and temperamental. Red is also a stimulating color that is associated with blood and fury and its fiery heat is reflected in Rothko’s self-centered demands, and harsh insults, towards his helper.

As his apprentice finally tells his master what he really thinks of him and his work and begins to leave in disgust, Rothko’s final words are, “GO! Find something NEW to paint.” This cynical advice seems to imply that after all the emotional turmoil involved in the process of creating a work of art, “newness” (or novelty) is the key to fame and fortune.

Steven Rowe is perfect Rothko. He not only looks like him, his silent pauses and irrational, outbursts truly capture the eccentric nature of the artist. Meantime, Patrick Andrews struggles with great restraint to understand and please his mentor, despite the increasing tension placed upon him. Both actors give memorable performances under Mark Lamos’ direction!

ART (The Play)

“Art,” written by Yasmina Reza, a French woman, is also about men and art. This time its about a “white on white “ painting that a successful dermatologist has purchased for the outrageous sum of 200, 000 Euros. He convinces himself to admire it but is hard-pressed to explain why. Is he happy because he believes that he made a wise investment? Or, does he truly see what his friends do not?

Although this comedy is written by a woman, this is an ensemble piece which cleverly explores the interactions of three men. John Skelley plays the dermatologist, “Serge.” His friends are “Marc” (Benton Greene), who is convinced that Serge is a sucker for buying the painting, and “Yvan” (Sean Dugan), who has big troubles regarding wedding preparations, and could not care less about Serge’s painting. He tries to be diplomatic about his opinion of the painting, however, in his efforts to keep the peace, one thing leads to another until Yvan becomes hopelessly embroiled in an escalating argument between Serge and Marc. They dispute over whether the painting really white or if there is more to it -- after all, isn’t white composed of many colors?

“I see a bit of blue and some red,” What about those three diagonal strokes -- don’t you see them? “Serge insists. Marc repeats what he sees, which in polite language is simply, “A piece of …. “(Excrement).

The three actors play off each other so naturally, that one might easily imagine that the actors are your personal friends, and the stage is your own living room.

The playwright’s teases the senses with such finesse, that you can’t help laughing at each, perfectly turned phrase.

You won’t be disappointed if you see both plays.

“Red”- on odd days
“Art” - on even Days - through May 29. Tickets: 203-227-4177

This review appears in “On CT & NY Theatre” May/2016

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