Syracuse Stage’s production of John Logan’s Red features impeccable production design, which is a Stage hallmark. The material won the 2010 Tony for Best Play, which had me wondering as I sat through last night’s performance… why? Logan said he was inspired by viewer response to Rothko’s paintings; many people dismiss the works as shallow or pretentious. Maybe Red is an elaborate joke then, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a play with its head further up its own ass.
The show begins and ends with Rothko alone on stage, pondering his work. The lighting and the music are the same, showing we’ve come full circle. Well, circle isn’t accurate – for 93 minutes we never really go anywhere. Rothko and his young assistant talk about art, and critics, and how the times they are a changing, but nothing much is revealed except during a gratuitous and awkward monologue about how the assistant’s parents were murdered in their bed when he was a child. It all plays like a late-night marijuana-fueled college gab fest – a lot more fun to participate in than to watch. I kept waiting for the moment that would turn everything sideways, that would “make us see” as Logan kept urging (via Rothko). The climactic moment of the piece occurs via a one-sided telephone conversation, and it’s underplayed. There’s a coda that’s a cheat, because it begins with Rothko collapsed from drink. Rothko foreshadowed his own suicide earlier, and we know he eventually did kill himself. Alas, in the play he just gets up and starts talking some more.