Jonathan Groff and Alfred Molina in Red
(© Craig Schwartz)
Jonathan Groff and Alfred Molina in Red
(© Craig Schwartz)
Red, the Tony Award-winning play by Josh Logan now at Los Angeles' Mark Taper Forum, is open to many interpretations just as art is itself, making the statements spoken by abstract artist Mark Rothko (Alfred Molina) both challenging and riveting.

The play follows the relationship between Rothko and his assistant Ken (Jonathan Groff) in the late 1950s when the artist was having a conflict of conscience. He had always considered himself pure from commercialism and now attempts to rationalize his commission to the Seagram's corporation for a mural to hang in their new Four Seasons restaurant.

As structured by Logan, the play is a collision of opposites: Red and Black, Mentor and Student, Rage and Passion, Establishment and New Order. This is perfectly exemplified through both dialogue and stage movement, such as the feat of visual splendor when Molina and Groff take a white canvas and aggressively brush it red with intensity. Is this a duty of one's work, a moment of expressed rage or a sexual release?

Then there are the four paintings that Rothko has been commissioned to paint, black numbers on red backgrounds. Does the black represent the death of the human body or is it something more frightening, the death of a legacy as Rothko and his ilk are finding themselves pushed aside by Lichtenstein, Warhol and the Pop Artists? For an egomaniac, to die would not be as scary as to be forgotten.

Molina and Groff add fervor to these issues with their performances, so the audience doesn't forget that there are living beings on the stage, not just the author's mouthpieces. Both are volcanic in their passions and one is never really sure if their relationship is that of boss and student, father and son, or even lovers. (There is undeniable sexual tension between the two always bubbling just under the surface.)

Molina perfectly captures the rage of an intellectual who thinks everyone's beneath him. He wants to present his art to the world but doesn't think the world deserves him. Groff, as the more innocent and yet the wiser soul, is equally compelling. He's more off the cuff in his delivery, and Groff's youthful lilt plays beautifully to both his speeches and the new movement in art.

Director Michael Grandage keeps the tension high, stringing his actors' barbs together with stirring music by Adam Cork that almost has the mood of a Bernard Herrmann score for a Hitchcock thriller. Grandage also effectively uses the scenic design of Christopher Oram and the lighting of Neil Austin to contrast the passion of Rothko's large fiery canvases against the cold, damp, dankly lit concrete studio setting.