If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan

"Art" and "Red" at Westport Country Playhouse

 

Two modern classics, Yasmina Reza’s “Art” and John Logan’s “Red”, make for a clever double-bill as the opening of the Westport Playhouse’s 86th season. Credit goes to Artistic Director Mark Lamos for pairing these Tony Award winners and directing solid productions of each.

Although both plays are worth seeing, “Red” is the stronger work while “Art” is probably the bigger crowd-pleaser. Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Reza’s enormously popular play about the price of friendship, is still a 90-minute hoot with something to say about the choices we make and how it affects those around us. When Serge (a delightfully smug John Skelley) buys a white-on-white painting for an extravagant sum of money, it immediately causes a rift in his relationship with longtime friends Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan). The play asks us to examine our relationships and the ultimate importance we place on them and all three actors, under Mr. Lamos’ snappy direction, create individuals that hit very close to home.

The play seems a tad European in its depiction of male friendship, but there is still universality about how fragile egos can be, how tentative our trust in friends often is and the conflicting nature of having an opinion and immediately losing respect for anyone who doesn’t share yours. I’ve seen “Art” many times and the play is sturdy enough to encompass a broad range of physical types and acting styles. At Westport, the company of actors and the production they inhabit do not disappoint.

“Red” probes the persona of modern artist Mark Rothko (a terrific Stephen Rowe) and his relationship with his young assistant, Ken, (Patrick Andrews). The artist is a chain-smoking, bitter, sarcastic bully who refuses to acknowledge Ken by his first name and insists they are not friends, just employer and employee. But Ken starts to question Rothko’s ethics accusing him of “selling out” by taking a commission to create artwork for the Four Seasons Restaurant. The conflicts and parallels between art and business are explored in the drama which also draws a compelling portrait of the artist/mentee relationship. Rowe, who understudied the role under Alfred Molina on Broadway, is an ideal Rothko, unafraid to go to the artist’s dark side and rageaholic mood swings. Andrews is also quite wonderful and more than holds his own in a sympathetic but unsentimental performance. Together the actors rivet the viewers’ attention for the entire 90-minute running time (no intermission) of this excellent two-hander.

Scenic designer Allen Moyer provides both sets with one slightly more successful than the other. “Red” has the advantage of using the entire Westport stage to create Rothko’s world, a vast warehouse with crowded workbenches overflowing with paints and brushes and framed by a seemingly endless supply of enormous canvases. This busy world perfectly captures the working artist. “Art” takes us to Serge’s pristine apartment of white walls and contemporary, minimal furniture. The flat looks fine but it is plunked down in the middle of the “Red” set so you still see remnants of Rothko’s messy shop on each side of this otherwise perfect apartment. It distracts throughout and, although Lamos may be commenting on the two play’s similarities, we never see any of “Art” during “Red”.

It would be nice if the Playhouse did offer both shows on a true repertory schedule giving theatergoers the opportunity, on matinee days, to see one play in the afternoon and the other in the evening. Instead, each play is offered only on an odd and even day schedule. Still, two separate trips are probably worth it for theatre this satisfying.

“Art” and “Red” alternate performances at the Westport Playhouse through May 29. For the complete schedule or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 203.227.4177 or visit: www.westportplayhouse.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the original founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.


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