What do you see? I see Mark Rothko, in the late 1950s, painting (or, more often, simply looking) at art in his New York studio, mulling over a set of murals he is painting for posh Four Seasons Restaurant in an elite Manhattan hotel. He’s being paid $35,000 for the work, the largest commission ever granted to an artist at the time, but he’s possibly selling his soul to the Devil (or the Man) to receive it. He shares his insights and aggravations, his pretentions and experiences, with Ken, an assistant who will grow to challenge him in ways he never imagined.
I suppose that no matter how many times you see it, “Red” will continue to grip you from its opening and never let go for the entirety of it 90 minutes. I first saw this extraordinary intellectual salon on art, literature, theatre, commercialism, symbology, ego and Weltanschauung last November at GableStage in a production that is now up for four Carbonell Awards. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre opened its own regional production this week, and of course the result is still captivating – a stimulating tet-a-tet full of lyrical revelations, brilliant rhymes and call-backs, and an engrossing embodiment of the tactility of art-making.
That said, does any of it matter in this review? When judging a modern classic that many people have already seen, my job as a theater critic is to distinguish a masterful rendering of a flawless play with a merely good one. Comparisons to the GableStage show are inevitable and fair, and the difference between these two productions is Dickensian: A Tale of Two Rothkos. As portrayed by Gregg Weiner in Gables, the artist was a mercurial animal, a docile creature who transformed into a shark whenever he saw blood. In Weiner’s hands, vocal loudness was not a perpetual state of mind but an occasional punctuation, and it made his explosions that much more intimidating; anything could set them off, and they were never predictable.
By contrast, Maltz’s Rothko, as played by Mark Zeisler, has the amplifier turned up to 11 in the opening scene, and the needle rarely quivers downward for the rest of the play. It’s important for Rothko to express his immediate intimidation of Ken, but in Gables, Weiner and director Joseph Adler accomplished this with a degree of nuance and subtlety. Nobody’s agitation is this constant as it is here, though, and Zeisler’s booming Shakespearean oration distracts from, rather than enhances, the material. It didn’t help that, on the evening I attended, the actor stuttered and stammered through his lines on several occasions, even when he was supposed to be in complete control.
Ultimately, Zeisler is outshone by JD Taylor, whose outstanding Ken surpasses Ryan Didato’s Carbonell-nominated rendering of the same character in GableStage. It’s a role that can seem like wallpaper for a goodly portion of “Red,” as Ken is reduced to a sounding board to whatever rant de jour is irking Rothko. But even in these moments, Taylor is always thinking, always formulating, always learning. He convincingly builds up his character’s strength so that when he finally does speak his mind to Rothko, it’s an absolutely breathtaking expression of self-actualization.
The Maltz’s production qualities are, as usual, top-notch. Gina Sherr’s lighting design imbues the abstract-expressionist paintings with the very unearthly glow about which Rothko so often pontificates; it’s amazing how a few well-placed lights can completely transform a canvas. James Kronzer’s set design is smaller than GableStage’s but just as effective; its paint-spattered easels, industrial shelving and cardboard-box towers are the picture of workaday functionality.
The bottom line is that if you missed the GableStage version last year, you may have a better time at this production. If, like me, you did see it, you may find yourself pleading for a little bit of restraint from its totemic leading character. Either way, you’ll still love the play.
“Red” is at Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter, through Feb. 26. Tickets are $56-$63. Call 561/575-2223 or visit www.jupitertheatre.org.