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"Red" Impresses With Its Acting, But Underwhelms as a Play

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John Logan's play, Red, arrives in Los Angeles presold to theatre lovers, and not without cause. After successful runs in London and New York, culminating with the Tony Award for Best Play, the prestige is certainly there. Alfred Molina's celebrated lead performance is still commanding and ferocious, and his co-star Jonathan Groff is a strong sparring partner. So there's a lot to like about the current transfer of the Donmar Warehouse production to the Taper, and most people will thoroughly enjoy it. I just wish the play was better.

In the late 1950s New York studio of famed artist Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina), young painter Ken (Jonathan Groff) is arriving, hoping to get a job as an assistant. "What do you see," asks Rothko, to whom this is not a trivial question, as he thinks most of the work of creating art is contemplating and thinking about it. Rothko likes Ken's answer enough to hire him as he works on his new commission: several murals for the Four Seasons restaurant. The conflict between art and commerce, enthusiasm versus experience and the eternal relay race of the old guard being supplanted by the new makes Ken's mentoring experience difficult but valuable.

The one indisputably terrific thing in this production is Molina's performance, which makes Rothko a bullying intellectual taskmaster, a peevish Titan zealously guarding the gates of Art. The actor can declaim and dominate with the best of them, but it's Molina's comic timing that impresses, a surety of attack that brings the delight of surprise to most of his punch lines. Groff is assured and skilled as Ken, but the role is so generic it's hard to authentically register--it's just a straw man for Rothko to instruct and rage against.

Michael Grandage's direction effectively keeps the one-set, two-actor show from feeling static, and Adam Cork's original music, reminiscent partly of Philip Glass, adds a welcome sense of high drama. John Logan's writing has much to recommend it, from intelligent, clever dialogue to genuine insights on Rothko and art, such as the courage of new artists being in facing the work of past masters and striving to create something which builds and reflects upon that foundation.

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My disappointment is that the structure of the play ignores that advice--instead of a deep look at Rothko and his work, we get Rothko as a colorful grump in yet another "passing the torch" mentoring piece. Also, the Ken character is a one-dimensional symbol for a young artist, and his backstory is unbelievable, the kind of thing an unsure playwright throws in to create instant drama. The character cheapens and weakens the story, and that's a shame, because there's two-thirds of a great play here.

"Red" plays at the Mark Taper Forum through September 9. Tickets are available online.