Plays that are conversations, and especially plays that are conversations about art, almost never manage to rise above pretentious. Walnut’s production of RED rises above it, but only barely.
In 1959, the now famous and infamous Four Seasons restaurant was opened in New York. A year before that, in 1958, they commissioned one of the most famous modern artists, Mark Rothko, to paint a series of works for the restaurant’s interior. Rothko initially agreed, planning to sabotage the restaurant experience with his famous plan to “ruin the appetite of every son-of-a-bitch who ever eats in that room”. But he later changed his mind, gave back the money he was paid, and kept the paintings. As such, dramatizing his decision to first accept the commission, and later to abandon it, is an interesting opportunity to examine the ancient symbiosis of wealth and money. After all, most of the greatest works of art in history were commissioned by people who, if alive now, would probably dine at Four Seasons.
Even with the excellent choice of topic, RED often stumbles on the basic problems of a conversational play, mainly because it repeatedly veers into the realm of a basic art history lesson. The acting and parts of the script lack the passion that needs to counterbalance these lessons. David Volin’s Rothko is tormented, but he’s not much else. The script calls for a performance that delivers more than that, whether biting cynicism or genuine love of art. Daniel Fredrick’s Ken is a good portrayal, but his character doesn’t leave much of a mark – partially because it depends on having a fierily egotistical Rothko to play off of. It doesn’t help that the backstory for young Ken is overly dramatic to the point of tiresome.
In Wilma’s production, Rothko’s and his young assistant’s dialogue on art reflects the way art is in conversation with itself, but it doesn’t manage to capture Mark Rothko as a fascinating and challenging character.
[Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St.] February 23-March 20, 2016; walnutstreettheatre.org.