Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in Red
(© Johan Persson)
Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne in Red
(© Johan Persson)
Toward the end of Red, John Logan's invigorating portrait of the artist Mark Rothko that's now playing the Golden Theatre, Rothko (Alfred Molina) charges his assistant and aspiring artist Ken (Eddie Redmayne) to "Make them look." It's an admonishment from an older artist to a younger one about painting, but it seems to be a command that the performers and director Michael Grandage have taken to heart with the production. For 90 largely plotless minutes, theatergoers are riveted to this play, unable to extricate themselves from both the performances and the show itself.

The action of Red unfolds over the course of two years as Rothko works on the famed murals that were to have hung at the Four Seasons restaurant in New York. During the course of the play, an uneasy professional relationship develops between the men as mentor and pupil, even as an even more awkward personal bond develops; both are informed (unsurprisingly) by two comments Rothko makes early on. When he first meets Ken and explains what the younger man's duties will be, he declares with characteristic bluntness "I am not your father." Later, while discussing the greats who preceded him, Rothko says "The child must banish the father. Respect him, but kill him."

The subtle changes in the men's relationship, which are completely presaged in these comments, are part of what draws theatergoers into the piece. A gorgeously choreographed sequence in which they throw themselves and maroon paint at a gargantuan canvas speaks volumes about their evolving relationship even though not one word is spoken between them. Here and elsewhere, what is so compelling is the fact that the shifts in power between the men is both as nuanced and bold as one of Rothko's own pieces.

Even as the performers' work together fascinates, their work individually scintillates. Molina, head shaved and eyes often hidden behind heavy black glasses, plays Rothko with ferocity and a level of tunnel-vision that borders on frightening. He strides the stage with leonine intensity and the artist's volcanic outbursts consistently startle. The performer also manages to capture the man's dichotomous moods of exhilaration and despair with not only controlled maniacal energy, but also genuine sensitivity.

Redmayne plays the initially timid assistant with innate and quiet intelligence that's mixed with a keenly felt vulnerability. As the character matures, and audiences learn more about him, the latter trait is enhanced immeasurably before his own eruption, a moment which Redmayne blisteringly delivers.

Although the play is often static, Grandage's staging sustains a palpable tension throughout. Even when there are pauses between scenes -- as the men shift canvases within the seemingly fully functional studio from scenic designer Christopher Oram (who's also created the remarkable recreations of the murals themselves) -- theatergoers' eyes are glued to the stage as a fusion of classical music and Adam Cork's original compositions, which pulse like the colors in Rothko's work, plays. Additionally, the show is electrifyingly lit by Neil Austin, who uses both footlights and practical working lights to create a moodiness that only further pulls theatergoers into this gripping piece of theater.