If you've noticed an increase in seismic activity in the LA basin lately, the epicenter can be clearly be traced to the main stage at the Mark Taper Forum, where the powerful production of John Logan's "Red" opened August 12th to thunderous applause and an instantaneous standing ovation.
The winner of the Best Play Tony Award in 2010, "Red" is an incredibly sublime discourse on modern art, told through a clever imagining of an intense relationship between artist Mark Rothko (played by the incomparable Alfred Molina) and Ken (Jonathan Groff), himself an aspiring painter, whom Rothko hires as an assistant to mix paints, prime canvases and get the artist whatever it is he needs. The time is 1958, right after Rothko has accepted the commission – the biggest at the time – to design a series of portraits for the Four Seasons restaurant at the latest New York skyscraper, the now iconic Seagram's building on Park Avenue.
As the two work together over the course of two years, their relationship is tested when Ken begins to question the motivation of Rothko, who eschews the very people who buy his art and who helped make him famous. With rapid fire dialogue that is all at once witty and wounding, you begin to see the power dynamic between the two man evolve in a most surprising and fascinating way.
Molina, Tony nominated for his portrayal, gives a mesmerizing performance, completely embodying Rothko as if he were manifesting him right before your eyes. Sitting on stage as the audience enters the auditorium, Molina commands your attention and never lets go in the brisk 90 minute performance.
Groff, replacing the talented Eddie Redmayne (who originated the role opposite Molina in the Broadway production, winning the Best Supporting Actor Tony in the process), holds his own against Molina. It's a tough role to pull off, as it requires the actor to begin as an acquiescent subordinate, who over the course of the evening must then challenge his mentor. But Groff does just that with a credible ease, slowly simmering, calculating and ultimately maturing into a man who can finally confront the master.
Adeptly directed by Michael Grandage, these two fine actors could have held court on a bare stage, and it would still be mesmerizing. There are hundreds of small moments between Molina and Groff that come together in such inspired unity to create a rich tableaux, but perhaps nothing is as thrilling as a two minute sequence when the two prime a canvas in a fevered state that is both exalted and enthralling.
A beautiful set design by Christopher Oram, made the play even more intimate and involving on the Taper's thrust stage, and a brilliant lighting design by Neil Austin beautifully sets the tone and mode for the piece, further enhancing the production and letting both the actors and art on stage pulse with every breath.
"Red" is a spectacular theatrical event that should not be missed under any circumstances. You'll leave the theatre feeling enriched, rewarded and fortunate that you could experience in this rare and magical work of art.
"Red" is playing now through September 9, 2012 at Centre Theatre Groups' Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 8p, Saturdays at 2:30p and 8p and Sundays at 1p and 6:30p. Tickets are available online at centertheatregroup.com, by calling Centre Theatre Group Audience services at 213-628-2772, or in person at the Centre Theatre Group Box Office at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave in Downtown Los Angeles.