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Better Red Then Dead: The Abstract Odd Couple


Patrick Stafford and Tony Abatemarco (Photos: Suzanne Mapes)

John Logan’s multiple Tony Award winning Red is a theatrical time machine that transports auds back to those heady days when Abstract Expressionism was the art world’s vogue and is the best two-man show this critic has ever seen. In this bioplay Tony Abatemarco incarnates the artist Mark Rothko, who emerged with Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning as the artistic exemplars of their generation, and we find the painter of those celebrated “fuzzy rectangular clouds of color” at the peak of his prominence. Yet, despite attaining fame and fortune and one of the most celebrated commissions (for a swanky New York restaurant) since Michelangelo laid on his back atop Vatican scaffolding to daub the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, Rothko remains the archetypal irascible, temperamental artiste. Why?

To find out what makes Mark tick the playwright has conjured up a fictional foil, Ken (Patrick Stafford), an aspiring painter who Rothko hires to work at his Lower Manhattan studio as the painter’s personal assistant. Ken is most certainly not hired to be the sorcerer’s apprentice, student, friend or pseudo son, Rothko pronounces in the beginning. As such, Ken helps the maestro mix his paints, stretches and scores his canvases, goes out to pickup coffee or Chinese food from nearby takeout joints -- and listens to Rothko ranting, raving and musing on art and life, with gems such as “most of painting is thinking.” For one so controlling, the painter enigmatically advocates “the active participation of the viewer” in his work. Among Rothko’s ruminations are spoken meditations on the relationship and tensions between art and commerce that evinces the painter’s awareness of capitalism’s commodification -- and festishism -- of culture.

Scenic designer JR Bruce recreates Rothko’s studio at the Bowery, with its colossal canvases and paint-splattered floor that looks like one of those action paintings wrought by Jackson Pollock. Much of Red’s dialogue focuses on Rothko’s friend and contemporary, whom Rothko insists killed himself (a prescient insight, considering Mark’s own fate). There is a throwaway line in the 2000 biopic Pollock directed by and starring Ed Harris, which seeks to explain why, despite his success, the drip painter remained tortured. Pollock’s brief explanation: An unhappy childhood.


Similarly, in a moment of revelation, Rothko discloses to Ken that he was born Jewish as Marcus Rothkowitz in 1903 in what he calls “Russia” (actually, Latvia), where he witnessed (or was told in vivid detail about) Cossacks butchering Jews. The lad moved to America when he was 10, and in what may be a nod to anti-Semitism in the land of the free, later changed his name so it wouldn’t sound too Jewish.

Despite his stature and wealth, in his troubled psyche Rothko arguably remained the ever-persecuted Jew, and no amount of fame and fortune could ever erase or compensate for his traumatized childhood. Call it P.P.T.S.D. -- Post Pogrom Traumatic Stress Disorder. His cry against the indifference of art critics and the public vis-à-vis his paintings echoes society’s silence in the face of the massacring of Jews Rothko may have been an eye witness too in his youth. He is also insecure about the late 1950s rise of Pop Art’s acolytes, such as Andy Warhol, who threaten to upend Abstract Expressionism’s hegemony in the ever-changing vagaries of the art scene’s collectors, galleries and museums.


Tony Abatemarco

John Logan is a top notch playwright and screenwriter whose screen credits include reflections on great artists, including Orson Welles in RKO 281 and Georges Méliès in Hugo, as well as Gladiator and the last James Bond flick Skyfall. Regarding the two-man show genre it’s much more common to see a one-man -- or one-woman -- show on the boards than plays starring two male actors. The upcoming The Sunshine Boys at the Ahmanson Theatre, co-starring Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch, has a supporting cast. Even Neil Simon’s other perennial favorite, The Odd Couple, featured a supporting cast. Yet, despite the fact that the budgetary appeal of a two-character play appeals to today’s cost conscious theaters, they are relatively rare.

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Red reminds me of International City Theatre’s production earlier this season of Master Class, about Maria Callas’ teaching of aspiring opera singers. And it’s far more accessible and better than another bioplay ICT presented in 2011, Loving Repeating, that required viewers to be Gertrude Stein experts in order to follow that musical. However, while this reviewer greatly enjoyed Red it’s not everybody’s cup of turpentine. Those uninterested in Abstract Expressionism -- and painting in general -- may find it boring. As it plumbs the creative process, some will probably consider Red too talky. Although there is a great fast moving scene wherein Mark and Ken prime a blank canvas with their brushes dipped in buckets, tantalizingly transforming the white into the titular red right before our very eyes.


Patrick Stafford

This color is resonant through the drama and redolent with ICT’s theme of 2013 theme of “passion.” There is also a moving vignette wherein Ken discovers Mark covered in the color -- is it paint or blood? (PLOT SPOILER ALERT: The scene seems to foreshadow Rothko assistant Oliver Steindecker’s finding the painter covered in his own blood, lying on the kitchen floor in 1970.) And, but of course, Rothko’s favorite drink is Johnnie Walker Red.

Abatemarco and Stafford acquit themselves well as the abstract odd couple in this anything-but-by-the-numbers 90 minute play minus intermissions. The performance by Abatemarco, a stage veteran who has appeared in movies such as Sleeping with the Enemy and on TV sitcoms like Frasier, is authoritative and convincing. Stafford is also effective as the worm (afraid to show the maestro one of his own oils) who (finally!) turns. Stafford has had a recurring role on TV’s Glee and played Wolfgang in an L.A. staging of Amadeus, which reminds me that Mozart and Beethoven are often played during Red, as the finicky Rothko adoredclassical music -- if not Chet Baker and all that jazz! Dave Mickey did the sound design and this two-man one-acter is deftly directed by caryn desai.

Red is for discerning theatergoers who love painting and/or well-acted drama, and all those who believe art belongs in a temple -- not restaurants.

ed rampell

Redis being performed through September 15 on Thursdays -- Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and on Sundays at 2:00 p.m., at the International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd.. Long Beach, CA 90802 on: For more info: (562) 436-4610;

Ed Rampell

Saturday, 24 August 2013