Saturday, June 26, 2010

Red (play)

RED by John Logan at the Golden Theatre

Chronicling two years in the life of abstract expressionist Mark Rothko and the continuing discussion about the meaning and/or uses of art with his assistant, a young man named Ken. Two actors, one set, 90 minutes, a lot of very large black and red paintings and an awful lot of chewed scenery. Did your local playhouse produce Art ten years ago? They have already put Red into next year's season and the rights aren't available yet.

I did enjoy Alfred Molina, a lot. Looking for a cheap place to eat off Times Square, I passed him walking toward the theater around noon. He was wearing shorts, on his way to work.

The major crisis is this play, the conflict, is within Rothko himself. Ken gets a little, troubled backstory, but he's not really a character, rather a sounding board for the famous person. Rothko has been commissioned to paint four enormous murals for a new restaurant in the recently built Seagram's Building. The restaurant in question is named The Four Seasons.

Much is made of people in relationship to art. Even from the very beginning, when Rothko is ordering the young man, who has just met, to stand here, or there, in relation to his latest work, pressing him to lean in, get close, make the canvas take up your entire peripheral vision. Light changes the painting. It is meant to pulse. If there is no viewer, does the painting still exist the way it was intended to exist? Is it still what it is?

Much is also made of philistines of all stripes. Those who want art that will match the place settings. Art that will fit over the mantle. Art that is valuable, that will become valuable. Or art that is like that other more famous art ... but less expensive. And those with the very deep pockets who will ask a notable painter at the height of his game to create murals for an expensive restaurant so people can eat and talk loudly and ignore it.

There is also the question of whether art must be serious to be meaningful (see: the dawn of Pop Art.) Or whether it is justifiable, in the act of taking pay from one you deem unworthy, that your creation is really in it's own way saying "fuck you" to the buyer, the audience, to everyone.

Now. Let us apply these questions to my experience this afternoon. On Broadway. Between the revival of Hair and the five thousandth matinee of The Lion King. The streets near Times Square jostling with confused a sun blind tourists, some of whom bought a ticket to see this afternoon's performance of a play they hadn't heard of before it won the Tony for Best Play just a few weeks ago. And it closes tomorrow!

The audience I shared this experience with was not offended by the main character's disdain for arts snobs - this is America, all Americans hate snobs! They all thought the descriptions of art-buying cretins were hilarious. People spending lots of money for artwork they cannot understand and do not appreciate.

By my count, I heard seven cellphones ring during this ninety minute performance. Those were the ones loud enough to be heard. It is no longer a matter of an actor worrying if a cellphone will go off during today's performance, but when and how many times.

Once it was at a seriously emotional high point, and Molina went on a rampage at the other actor, Eddie Redmayne. It was hard not to imagine this outburst was taken to a new level by the interruption. But then people around me were whispering loudly, shocked that someone would leave their cellphone on during a performance.

Or whisper loudly during a performance.

Is a painting relevant when it is necessary for the viewer to understand it? Is a play relevant when, for all of its treatises about the meaning and uses of art, it is itself an overpriced commodity, sold to an audience that wants it to fit neatly between a trip to Madame Tussaud's and dinner at Planet Hollywood?

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