If you ask me…

- Tom Holehan


Tony Winner “Red” on Stage in Hartford


“Red,” with only two characters and a running time of 90 minutes (no intermission), is playwright John Logan’s fictionalized story about the great abstract painter Mark Rothko and his two-year relationship with an assistant. It won the Tony Award for “Best Play” on Broadway two seasons ago and is currently being produced by TheaterWorks in Hartford.


Chain-smoking, heavy-drinking Mark Rothko was one of those colorful, bigger-than-life tortured artists who seem to inspire writers. At TheaterWorks the role is inhabited brilliantly by Jonathan Epstein who roars into view ready to take no prisoners. He easily commands the stage giving us a Rothko full of contradictions equal parts egomaniacal and self-deprecating, vulnerable and vitriolic. Set in 1958 when the artist was commissioned to produce a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant, Logan’s play examines Rothko’s internal battle between art and commerce: can he live with “his children” being in an environment where the consumption of food is the primary entertainment?


As Rothko’s assistant and, at times, voice of reason, Thomas Leverton is also excellent.  It can’t be easy sharing a stage with the dynamic Mr. Epstein, but Leverton is more than up to the task. And Logan must be credited for making this battle -- if not one of equals -- at least not a lopsided free-for-all between teacher and student. Covering a two-year period, the play is, instead, a series of thought-provoking confrontations and debates over the meaning of art and, under Tazewell Thompson’s solid direction, they crackle with meaning, wit and purpose.


The TheaterWorks stage has been stripped and perfectly transformed by designer Donald Eastman to create Rothko’s brick and tile studio. Stephen Quandt’s lighting is especially effective highlighting the various on-stage murals (nicely replicated here for the play) and the jazzy sound design by J. Hagenbuckle seems absolutely right.


The play has its limits, however, and ultimately seems thin in the writing. Observations about people buying art to match the furniture can be traced back to Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986). This may be all that Logan chose to explore about Rothko, but it doesn’t seem to build to any significant climax and the ending, in particular, is rather abrupt. As a showy vehicle for two strong actors, “Red” succeeds beautifully. In the end, though, you may find yourself wanting to know a little more about this most enigmatic and fascinating of contemporary artists.


“Red” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through May 6. For ticket reservations, call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit www.theaterworkshartford.org. Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle 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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