NEW YORK, NY (AP).- "What do you see?"
They are the tantalizing first words of "Red," John Logan's engrossing, often enthralling new play about art, an artist and the act of creation.
Not since "White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities." the final thoughts from the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical "Sunday in the Park With George" has a statement produced such a shiver of anticipation and exhilaration.
And like "Sunday," a musical about French painter Georges Seurat, "Red," which opened Thursday at Broadway's Golden Theatre, focuses on a famous artist, American abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. But unlike "Sunday" and its impoverished hero, "Red" depicts a financially successful man, critically lauded in his prime, yet growling about art, his fellow artists and life.
And the two-character play, set in the late 1950s, deals with an especially lucrative moment for Rothko, his painting of a series of murals for a swank restaurant, the Four Seasons, in the architecturally acclaimed Seagram Building on Park Avenue.
The question that opens "Red" is posed by Rothko to a young man, then hired by the artist to help him with the grunt work of creation: stretching canvases, mixing paint, cleaning brushes and applying ground color, which Rothko admonishes "is not painting."
That is the most elemental pleasure of "Red," watching Rothko, played by a beefy, bald Alfred Molina, and Ken, his new assistant (Eddie Redmayne), as they labor to create these murals. In one astonishing moment, the two men apply a coat of primer to canvas with an almost Dionysian fury and are physically spent by the hard work. So is the audience just by watching them.
In between, a bitter Rothko talks to his eager new employee in a furious eruption of words, words that are delivered by Molina with the fiercest of conviction. The actor inhabits Rothko completely, giving one of those unnerving performances that makes you believe in the possibility of reincarnation.
Redmayne is the perfect foil as the would-be acolyte. Despite being saddled with a melodramatic back story (he is haunted by his parents' murder years ago), the character grows throughout the play's swift-moving 90 minutes, changing from awed tentativeness to a more critical, almost combative observer of genius in action.
Logan, who wrote the screenplays for such diverse films as "Gladiator" and Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," carefully develops this intriguing give-and-take. As Rothko rails and pontificates, Ken begins to needle. Rothko is not exactly a starving artist, Ken suggests, and the home for his latest works is not a contemplative, chapellike museum but an expensive watering hole for the titans of capitalism.
Rothko is also less than sympathetic about a younger generation of artists such as Warhol, Lichtenstein, Stella and Rauschenberg usurping his prominence, something, Ken points out, the painter himself did when he, Pollack, de Kooning and others took over from the cubists.
The production, under the immaculate, tightly focused direction of Michael Grandage, comes from London's Donmar Warehouse, where Grandage is artistic director. Grandage allows Rothko's barbed, brutish yet often insightful comments on art to unfold with a theatrical flair that educates as well as entertains. After experiencing "Red," ''What do you see?" is a question audiences will be able to answer with enormous satisfaction.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.