In “RED,” the newest play at the Vineyard Playhouse, the boss man meets the young intern, and we instantly know this will be the job from hell. But not just any job from hell. This one takes place in 1958 and ’59, in a hermetic New York studio, with roughed-up grey walls and giant canvasses of the ultra famous abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, played with stunning yet carefully bottled intensity by Victor Talmadge. The fictional new assistant, dressed like a Jehovah’s Witness in a dark suit and tie, is clearly out of his element as he beholds the middle-aged, paint-spattered genius, his glasses twinkling over beady eyes, a cigarette in hand that he’s too busy to smoke as he stares at an imaginary painting with the savage scrutiny of Savonarola with his latest heretic.
And yet Rothko worships his paintings. As Tony Award-winning playwright John Logan sees it, Rothko is his paintings. He’s the artist’s ego without a drop of any of the other redeeming features of normal humanity. Ken, the new assistant played with startled initial innocence by Michael Jennings Mahoney, stares too, because clearly even a five-alarm fire could not compete with the artist’s keen perusal of his work.
Rothko’s first words are “What do you see?”
Before poor Ken can reply, Rothko goads him with conflicting cues: “Let it pulsate! Let it work on you! Be kind! Be a human being for once in your life! What do you see?”
What do any of us see when we regard paintings? First, I imagine, we all have a favorite period: Impressionist, Quatro Cento, Cubism, Pop. Once we’ve locked in, it might get tricky actually seeing a painting from a lesser-loved style. But Rothko only wants us to dive into his bottomless colors, with their fabled plangent rectangles of reds, yellows, greens, and occasional blues, but mostly La Brea tar pit depths of reds, and the blacks that he fears will one day overtake his canvas. We know what that means. (He does, in 1970, fade to black, found dead on his kitchen floor, with a series of razor cuts to his arms).
Assistant Ken, an aspiring artist — who else would tolerate so unfriendly, demanding, and solipsistic a boss, but someone hoping to learn from him? — rapidly adapts to the situation, showing up in paint-splotched shirts and trousers, and tossing back some heated rhetoric of his own.
The art project at hand is a grand commission on the level of a 20th-century Sistine Chapel, only without the spiritual dimension. Rothko has signed on to create a continuous four walls of murals for the posh Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building. The assistant is doubtful from the start that Rothko’s dramatic abstract expressionism belongs in this upcoming emporium of upper bourgeois consumption. Rothko purposefully ignores this slow wade into pretentious monied waters, and lets himself be overcome by the splendor of four high, wide walls emblazoned with his vision.
And yet he’s not about to start by actually lifting a brush. No, he’ll stare some more. A great deal more. And drink whisky and smoke and stare. “Most of painting is thinking,” he tells his new lackey. The actual painting only takes up about 10 percent of his time, he declares. And the hours in the studio? “We start at nine and work until five, just like bankers,” he says. In the next breath, he reminds Ken that “There’s tragedy in every brush stroke.”
Is it teaching or is it abuse or both? Rothko orders his intern to read Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy.” He fulminates against Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, because his obsession with his own work allows for little appreciation of the work of others. He prods Ken to open up about why a particular shade of red reminds him of dried blood. He also goads and hazes until finally Ken turns out to be just as verbose and opinionated, from the younger side of the generation gap. He even goes so far as to place a jazz album on the turntable, after he’s endured a cavalcade of classical music preferred by the maestro. The maestro puts a stop to the jazz the minute he enters the studio: “When you pay the rent, you can pick the records.” It’s a tribute to MJ Bruder Munafo’s impeccable directing that, as the music plays and the two characters analyze and argue about the seriousness of art, we in the audience, I’m willing to bet, never once think “Will someone turn the music off?” the way we do in real life when we’re trying ourselves to analyze and argue.
Although Rothko remains an unabashed tyrant, albeit a talented one, Ken pushes back, at one point calling his boss a “solipsistic bully.” Yet every so often an almost untraceable moment of shared humanity effervesces through an otherwise torturous workplace situation. While Rothko is a snob about refusing to paint pictures he describes as “over-mantles,” he remains steadfast in his dream of creating the hush and thrall of a cathedral in the Four Seasons restaurant. Or does he?
A masterful recreation of a great artist’s studio is rendered by Lisa Pegnato. Lighting design is by Ernest W. Innaccone, who works with Rothko’s scrupulosity about lighting, preferably coming from within the painting and never from natural light, which he disdains as overriding the colors. Costume design is by Cynthia Bermudes, sound by Benjamin Emerson, with Christine Lomaka doing her usual accomplished job as stage manager.
“RED” will show through Sept. 3. For tickets and more information, visit mvplayhouse.org or call 508-693-6350.