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John Logan’s Red is not the first fictionalization of painter Mark Rothko in his studio. In the final episode of the Simon Schama’s Power of Art documentary series, Allan Corduner gravely recites passages from Rothko’s writing. Cigarette and whiskey in tow, Corduner’s Rothko is penetrating and severe. Logan’s take on the famous painter is similar, except his Rothko also happens to be an insufferable bully, one who rages against a society that, in his mind, is unfit to gaze upon his work. The production suffers as Rothko’s bluster worsens. Absent well-developed role, Logan’s play instead relies on unearned invective.

Edward Gero stars as Rothko, a man whose imposing figure matches a ferocious intellect. His studio is a reflection of his sensibilities: ominous, dark rectangles pepper the background, and streaks of dry reddish color lie against the surface where he paints.  Bottles of liquor sit on his work bench, and a phonograph is on the floor next to a stack of classical records. When we first see Rothko, he quietly listens to music while staring at his painting, as if in a state of grave reflection. A young man (Patrick Andrews) enters his studio. His name is Ken, and Rothko hired him as assistant. His abuse of Ken happens only moments after they begin speaking: at first he’s critical of his clothes, and then finds something wrong with Ken’s taste and education.

Rothko is quick to point out he’s not Ken’s teacher, a promise which he – of course – breaks within minutes. Whether it’s about the meaning of color or Ken’s favorite painter, Rothko is constantly testing Ken, trying to determine if he’s worthy of breathing the same air. Other, more important matters are also on the painter’s mind. The owner of the Seagram building just commissioned Rothko to create several murals for the The Four Seasons, a new restaurant. Rothko will receive $35,000 for the paintings ($272,000 in today’s dollars), and Ken instinctively questions him about the commission. They debate the intersection of art and commerce, all while Rothko denies how he’s selling out.

Rather than develop his characters, Logan writes one long-winded speech after another, punishing the audience into thinking the writing has significance. Some of the debates with Ken have unnatural style; they take turns listing red objects, and the differences among them (e.g. blood versus a sports car) reveal how their sensibilities differ. Scenes are like this are an opportunity for Logan to show off, and little else. He does not develop his characters, except as vessels for the art movements they represent – Ken prefers Warhol and Lichtenstein – so the play never moves beyond a portentous verbal exercise.

At first, Logan’s unsympathetic characters seem to have a greater purpose. Rothko was an unrivaled intellectual, after all, and the high demands of his viewers created a hostile attitude towards them. But then the play culminates with Ken’s verbal evisceration of Rothko, and though it’s spoken by the other actor, the speech is also condescending and abusive. Logan does not want the audience to think critically about what the characters say; we’re only meant to agree as we listen, no matter which man is telling off whom. There’s little nuance to this kind of drama, and the unceasing severity soon sounds like a parody of itself. When Rothko says, “Sharing my art with the public is like a blind child entering a room full of razor blades,” people in the audience snickered. I don’t think Logan is in on the joke.

Rothko is a meaty, theatrical role, and Gero imbues the painter with appropriate hostility. To his credit, his diatribes always sound persuasive, even if Logan gives the actor little else to do. The way Gero emphasizes simple phrases/words are an indirect way of showcasing the painter’s intellect. When he asks Ken, “What do you see?”, we can hear how he cannot settle for a simple answer. In his delivery, Andrews sounds like an innocent neophyte, which is right for role. His character is relatively optimistic, and his early patience is the only way we can tolerate Rothko’s bile.

Though the characters are overstuffed with ideas, the moments without dialogue are where director Robert Falls find brief moments of power. In Red’s best scene, Ken and Rothko breathlessly paint a primer coat onto a blank canvas; the rapid movement earns a smattering of applause. Afterward, Ken and Rothko’s face are stained with red, a metaphor for the toll of their creation. Still, in a play full of intellectual debate, the physical strain of artistic work should not be more compelling than dialogue.

Fans of Rothko know his paintings are deceptively simple. Stare at a Rothko long enough, especially in a room with appropriate light, and you can see tumult in the color. Along the margins of his shapes, the paint seems to vibrate, as if it wants to tell the viewer something urgent.  But in Red’s final moment, a neon light embellishes the center of a Rothko replica, and this visual exaggeration violates the way the artist intended us to see his work. Like the play itself, this coda strives for meaning and fails because its methods are so aggressively ham-fisted.

Red is at Arena Stage until March 11. Buy tickets here!