Red and White at Westport

By Tom Nissley

Westport Country Playhouse is presenting a double whammy: John Logan’s play about Mark Rothko’s work, entitled “RED,” and Yasmina Reza’s play about a white on white painting and its impact on three friends, entitled “ART.” Both plays are directed by Mark Lamos.

Both plays are ensembles. In “Red” Patrick Andrews plays he part of Ken, a young artist who replies to an ad for an assistant to Mark Rothko (Stephen Rowe). After agreeing to never comment on Rothko’s work, and to never expect any kind of social grace or instruction from the famous artist -- to do menial tasks like stretching canvas and washing brushes, and never be late, Ken adapts to a rugged routine of servant to master.

Over a period of several years Ken works for Rothko. Once he brings a wrapped sample of his own work, but never finds the right time to approach the boss with his painting. They are working together on huge canvases that Rothko intends to have installed in Phillip Johnson’s new design of a restaurant -- the Four Seasons. Ken suggests that the venue may not be appropriate for the quality of his art, receiving only a reprimand in response. But one day Rothko goes to the new restaurant for lunch and is appalled by the chatter and noise of the place. A museum it is not.

By now the two men have developed an unspoken but shared care for each other. When Ken finds Rothko passed out in a stupor one morning he panics but revives him. In a splendid outburst he upbraids Rothko for treating him like a machine, and never asking about his life. Rothko moves to the telephone and calls Johnson. ‘Philip, I cannot allow my paintings to hang in your restaurant.’ Then he turns and fires Ken, possibly acknowledging that the younger man has a value that needs to be nourished and grow on his own.

Or possibly not. Either way, it’s a splendid production of a fine play, and very, very, worth a visit.

Now on to the white on white…Yasmina Reza is a French playwright and “ART” takes place in Paris (not noted in the program, but evident in the script). It is about three men who have been friends for years, and know each other’s’ foibles with affection -- in a way that is more common to European male bonding than to American, if you live by stereotype, and, we do. I could wish that Mr. Lamos had better acknowledged this in the staging,

“ART” is also an ensemble. The three friends, Yvan (Sean Dugan), Marc (Benton Greene), and Serge (John Skelley), have different circumstances and different tastes, but today they are expected to admire a new acquisition by Serge of a painting by a very famous artist of white diagonal stripes on a white background, for which he has paid 200,000 euros. Marc is incredulous. ‘You paid two hundred grand for that – it’s rubbish.’ ‘No, it’s not.’ ‘Yes, it is.’ ‘No.’ ‘Yes.’ And so it goes, getting even more lively when Ivan arrives, late, stressed and needing solace of his own, and trying not to be caught in offending Serge, but ultimately siding with Marc that what is before them passing as white stripes on a white background is just a white canvas to which a fancy artist’s name has been attached. Serge is, of course, fully offended. In a supreme gesture of love, he allows Marc to draw with a marking pen on his prize painting, and finally, the three men are still bonded, after a thoroughly bitchy exercise with risk and reward hanging by a thread in the balance.

“ART” is the easier play, of the two, to follow. It’s a great romp, and could be greater if a European touch was more pronounced. But I heartily recommend it and expect you to enjoy it.

Placing the two plays “in rep” is a brilliant idea, and allows us all to discuss what is art? what is great art? is it still great art if it was painted by someone unknown?, etc.

Get tickets and schedules at www.westportplayhouse.org, or call 203-227-4177.

Tom Nissley for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre.

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