The sequence eloquently reminds us of a joy we rarely get to see: the artist consumed by the everyday physical demands of his work, an act by which the intellectual and emotional weight of his other concerns — his reputation, his hubris, his self-doubt — is for the moment banished. It looks like so much fun, such a terrific workout, that we all want to get up on the stage of the Kreeger Theater and splatter primer onto the canvas with them. It helps, too, that set designer Todd Rosenthal has conceived of Rothko’s work space as such a vigorously messy environment for genius, and the lighting by Keith Parham puts so luminous an accent on the radiant dimensions of the painter’s works-in-progress.
The convulsive frenzy in which the actors complete the priming is a reflection of other powerful forces at work in “Red,” Logan’s portrait of Rothko in the late 1950s, when the painter was in the midst of one of his most important commissions, a series of murals for the new Four Seasons restaurant occupying the bottom floors of a landmark of 20th-century architecture, Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson’s Seagram Building.
How authentically Logan has framed the issues of “Red” is a matter better left to the art world’s keener arbiters. What can be easily deduced from Falls’s production — an excellent successor to the Tony-winning version directed by Michael Grandage and starring Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne — is that Rothko has been translated for the stage into a marvelous character. Tyrannical, bombastic, narcissistic, he has a bedside manner you wouldn’t wish on the most cravenly ambitious intern.
And yet, beyond the vision and the artistry, this Rothko redeems himself in a profound yearning to be tested, to discover whether he truly merits a place in the pantheon. Over the course of the play, performed without intermission, Rothko acknowledges anxiety over the pop-art movement that is supplanting abstract expressionism. Ken, for his part, pricks Rothko’s conscience, telling him the Four Seasons commission subverts his long-held values. In the final throes of the drama, after finally letting Rothko have it — decrying his paranoia, self-absorption and lack of generosity — the younger man says he expects now to be fired. “Fired?” the painter replies. “This is the first time you’ve existed.”
Gero, in owlish glasses and unsmiling demeanor, is the resonant embodiment of an uncompromising artist with an overdeveloped sense of grievance. He’s the advocate here for a rigorous, cerebral rationale for art and though it reeks of self-importance, it’s also to be admired. “A generation that does not aspire to seriousness, to meaning, is unworthy to walk in the shadow of those who have gone before,” Rothko instructs Ken. Out of Gero’s mouth, the words have an almost threatening edge — there’s a desperation in this artist’s pronouncements, a poignant need to shout over what he perceives as the noise of a community that’s beginning to turn away from him.