John Logan’s Tony Award-winning play Red gets its local premiere in a sure-handed production by Philadelphia Theatre Company.
The play takes place from 1958-1960 inside the New York City studio of famed artist Mark Rothko (a commanding Stephen Rowe). One of the world’s leading painters, the cantankerous and egocentric Rothko receives a huge commission to paint a series of murals for a fancy restaurant catering to Manhattan’s elite. To help with the more menial tasks (mixing paint, smoothing canvas, fetching coffee, etc.), he hires a young, eager art school student named Ken (Academy Award-nominee Haley Joel Osment, who 11 years earlier seriously spooked Philadelphians in M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller The Sixth Sense).
Both Osment and Rowe are excellent, but there’s a problem. While we see and hear a lot about the artist’s creative process, we never feel the intensity of the paintings. The play intellectualizes Rothko’s work but we never connect with it on a visceral level.
This isn’t to say that Red doesn’t touch us at all. Ken moves us with his memory of a horrific event that occurred when he was a child. The focus may be on Rothko’s work, but it’s Ken’s chilling tale that leads us to fully appreciate the emotional force that form and color can possess.
Director Anders Cato’s production emphasizes the similarities between the artist’s approach to painting and theater, which likewise requires an audience to bring the work to life. Rothko’s art may remain abstract, but with Cato’s insightful direction and the talents of Rowe and Osment, we have no problem relating to Ken and Rothko as human beings who—like ourselves—are in need of understanding and validation.
Through Nov. 13. $25-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard sts. 215.985.0420. philadelphiatheatrecompany.org