Real applause on opening night — instantaneous, thunderous and 'thank you,' all in that opening blast — is unmistakable to seasoned first-nighters thoroughly conditioned to the other kind. The real thing greeted Red at the Golden April 1. No April Fooling, this was authentic appreciation of an evening that aspires to pull the audience into the mind of the creating artist — in this case, Mark Rothko (1903-1970) at the height of his powers, toiling for two years over "the classiest mural assignment since the Sistine Chapel." From 1958 to 1960, he labored over his masterpiece — the Seagram Murals, which were intended to adorn The Four Seasons, the luxury restaurant in the then-new Seagram building on Park Avenue.
His perverse hope was that his art would turn the eatery into a cathedral and give its wealthy diners indigestion. It was said to be the largest mural commission since the Renaissance. The collection has been broken up into chunks and scattered to the four winds — to Washington's National Gallery, London's Tate Gallery, a Tokyo museum and private collections.
It was at the Tate that John Logan encountered the murals and, impressed by the way "the colors spoke to each other," envisioned a two-hander of a play, inventing for Rothko a helping hand — a young wannabe-painter and assistant named Ken. The play is their interplay, the young man being pelted by lighting bolts about art by the old master, but gathering strength from it, growing from punching bag to gofer to sounding board to inevitable usurper — the pupil who eclipses his teacher. In the late '50s, Rothko was feeling the next wave of innovative artists (the Andy Warhol pop crowd) bearing down on him, ultimately dethroning him just as the great abstract-expressionist had kicked Cubism to the curb when he arrived.
The most exuberant expression of the artist's life is not a scene of painting per se, but of "priming" — preparing a canvas by lathering on a coat of red paint for future strokes of genius. Rothko (played with commanding, uncracked bravado by Alfred Molina) and Ken (Eddie Redmayne, more than holding his own beside this force of nature) attack the canvas with urgent, all-consuming, delirious abandon. It makes for heart-filling spectacle and wins applause more often than not. In its celebration of the creative drive, the moment is comparable to the one that ends Act I of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George when George completes "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Quite appropriately, Red is dedicated to Sondheim — but for a different reason: Logan was in London writing the screen adaptation of Sweeney Todd, and it was through Sondheim's nicely needling encouragement that Logan came to create Red, his first play in ten years.
On opening night, Sondheim sat directly behind the renewed playwright and, just before the show started, whispered into his ear, "Savor it. Savor this night."
It was impossible to do, Logan admitted later at the properly splashy after-party held at the lavish and much-pillared Gotham at Broadway and West 36th Street.
"I barely watched the play," he recalled. "I was just tingling with the excitement of being in that select society of Broadway. I've been wanting to be a Broadway playwright since I was 14 and saw my first Broadway show. This was one of the great moments of my life — and to have it happen with my friends in the house!"
Logan certainly had an all-star cheering section going for him, including the freshly Oscared director, Kathryn Bigelow, and the Oscar-winning Best Director of 2006, Martin Scorsese. Both will be filming Logan's words in June — Bigelow in New York helming an HBO pilot called "The Miraculous Years," about a Broadway composer and his artist father, and Scorsese in London making "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" with Ben Kingsley and Sacha Baron Cohen. "It'll be a busy June for me," Logan said, "back and forth from London to New York."
The hardest thing about Red, Logan admitted, was getting into the mindset of an artist of Rothko's stature who communicates largely in didactic diatribes. "It's a combination of learning about the real Rothko, thinking about how an artist seriously talks about art and the brilliance of Fred Molina, who brings it to life in a way that makes it feel completely real and not like any sort of performance. For a deceptively simple play of two characters and 90 minutes and one set, there's a lot of drama going on, a lot of electricity shooting around there and a lot of ideas."
In his third Broadway appearance, Molina had a softer landing than before — thanks to a long, acclaimed, break-in tryout at the Donmar Warehouse in London. "First-nights are always a bit nerve-racking," he allowed, "but this was a night where we felt we had the advantage of having done the play before in London, so tonight wasn't quite so much an opening night in the usual sense. As John Logan put it, 'What you gotta do is you gotta think about it as 'We're taking a hit show from London and presenting it to New York.' That was a slightly less heart-racing way of putting it. The audience seemed to enjoy it. Their response was very generous and very embracing, but we've been getting a similar response for most of the previews."
[flipbook] An extra edge for him is a scene partner who picked up the Olivier for Featured Actor a couple of Sundays ago. "Eddie and I get on very well. We had that chemistry right from the start. It's a partnership. We always take the curtain calls together."
Redmayne got the Olivier news the minute he finished his Sunday matinee at the Golden and just before he went back for the curtain calls. "This wonderful woman, Sylvia, our electrician, was standing backstage holding a sign made out of masking tape that said, 'You Won!' It was the best possible way to find out. It felt fantastic, but I was incredibly sad and frustrated Fred didn't get nominated because he is the play, and I certainly couldn't have done what I did without him, but I'm sure he'll do extraordinary things here because it's a virtuoso performance."
Confidence is making your Broadway bow in a role that already won you an Olivier, and Redmayne thinks he's going to like it here: "I can tell how the sense of community on Broadway is amazing. Our first dress rehearsal was a gypsy run so we had Angela Lansbury and Sam Rockwell in the audience. If that's not a trial by fire, I don't know what is — terrifying and wonderful at the same time — but it's lovely to come here in a play that you care about so much." The 28-year-old found much to identify in Ken. "I relate to him in that I think all young people have bosses in their lives, mentors, people they despise and admire at the same time. That's something I relate to and try to learn from through osmosis."
Plus, Ken has the audience-winning ability to rise above the bullying he gets. "I enjoy doing that scene, but, to get there, takes a lot of listening. The character changes throughout the piece so there's a lot of setting up framework under which you can then rightfully explode rather than it looking like, 'All right, this is my moment.'"
Red is director Michael Grandage's second Donmar transfer to Broadway this season. The first, Jude Law's Hamlet, should give Molina a run for the Tony. "Yes, it's been a fantastic year on Broadway," the director readily conceded, "and a really enjoyable thing to able to share the things that we make in Britain and then bring here and have a completely different, excited response by a community that really wants the work." This should be it for a while. "I've got a big slate back in England, lined up right away through to King Lear at the end of the year with Derek Jacobi at the Donmar. So I won't be back for a while."
He is only here now because an American walked in off the streets of London with the idea of a play in his head and a specific idea of where to hang it. "When John was working in England, he went to the Donmar a lot and said, 'I want to write something for that space,' so he actually wrote a piece of theatre for that space, really — and that is why we put it on. But we always had the intention, if it was something that was in any way successful, it would be a great play to share with America, given that it's by an American writer about an American artist."
Logan has praised Grandage for embracing and physicalizing the nuts-and-bolts of making art. "One of the things John delivered was a very specific script, but, of course, like all authors, it was an opportunity for a designer and a director and a composer and a lighting designer to collaborate and create a piece of work," Grandage said. "That was the enjoyable thing about putting on Red — taking Rothko's pictures and being able to illuminate them. That's just the nature of interpreting the text. "What truly attracted me to the play was that it was more than just about Mark Rothko and his studio for two years. It was a play, really, about the nature of creativity. It was also a play about a fundamental part of life. When we're young, sometimes people want to pass on information to us, and we receive it, and then, before we know it, we're the older person passing on information to younger people. It's about whether you're generous enough to pass on information and about whether you're generous enough to receive information as a human being — by whether you're open to that kind of debate, that kind of dialogue. That's at the center of this play. That whole mentor-pupil relationship, father-son relationship, is a very integral part of why I wanted to do it, really."
The play spares us Rothko's tragic end but implies it in Grandage's direction of the fifth and final scene. "We didn't want the play to end with his suicide — that was ten years later — but certainly that whole thing was trying to say, 'This is in the air.'"
On Feb. 25, 1970, the 66-year-old Rothko was found by his assistant in his kitchen, his arms sliced with a razor, lying dead in a pool of red. The Seagram Murals on display at the Tate Gallery arrived in London on the very day of his suicide.
Frank Stella, the American painter and printmaker and one of the next generation of artists Rothko saw coming over his shoulder, was at the party, speaking nicely of the play and its subject. "I thought the staging and the whole feel was really very, very good, and — although the play tried to make it look as if Rothko was worried about me — he was actually quite sweet to me in those days."
Yes, but was it art? That is to say, is art like that? The 75-year-old artist pondered the question and then nodded. "I thought the sense of the studio and the work and the feeling about the larger ideas was really pretty good. What it doesn't have — which is fine — is the nitty-gritty of the work, which is not really interesting, but I thought it was a very nice characterization — and, basically, to the point."
Prominent among the many clipped Brit accents at the party was Adam James, glowing with a Lortel nod for his three-play support in The Pride, one of the first award nominations of the season. "Really?" he said, taken aback. "Are there potentially more awards to be had? I want them all. This is just the beginning!" All of the above built slowly to a mad cackle of award-hording power.
He was sitting at Redmayne's table, by virtue of having been his co-star recently. "We did Christopher Shinn's latest play, Now or Later, at the Royal Court in the 2008-2009 season. I played a George Stephanopoulos type, and he played the son of the President-elect who was messing up my campaign, basically, as well as his father's chances of getting elected. He and I had a lot of conflict. It's a terrific play. I don't know why it hasn't come to New York."
Producer Jeffrey Richards, who gave Logan his first New York showcasing — Off-Broadway's Never the Sinner — made the party rounds with his latest playwright and director — Lucy Prebble and Rupert Goold of Enron, which opens April 27 at the Broadhurst. Enron comes from the same play as Red: England.
Stephen Kunken, last seen Stage Managing Our Town, is now Andy Fastow of the Enron crowd. (He was in attendance with his director-wife Jenn Thompson, who staged a play about another artist — The Late Christopher Bean, Off-Broadway in 2009.) "Grover's Corners has given way to Houston, TX, the land of corruption and deceit — it's great," Kunken declared with hand-rubbing enthusiasm. "It's such a humongous production so putting it all together is amazing. All the elements are starting to come into the room now."
Kunken has never met the person he is playing, but he'd like to. "Andy's in jail, but, depending how his parole goes, he might actually be out if our show runs long enough. Maybe he'll come and say hi backstage." (Unlikely, but thanks anyway.)
As scripter of the Sherie Rene Scott vehicle, Everyday Rapture, Dick Scanlan had some hand-rubbing enthusiasm going, too, now that that show has abruptly popped up as the button for the 2009-2010 season. "Sherie and I are looking at a few things in the show that we were thrilled to have a chance to fine-tune," Scanlan relayed. "Y'know, you never finish — you run out of time. Despite the things we accomplished last time — and we did a lot in previews — there were those last few things, and we're going to try to up the ante there."
Most authentic Redheads of the evening were Cynthia Nixon and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. Other first-nighters included Alan Alda, Remy Auberjonois, Matthew Settle (who'll be doing Chicago with Michelle Williams), "The Hurt Locker"'s Oscar-winning scripter Mark Boal, director George C. Wolfe, Gregory Crewdson, Debra Winger with Arliss Howard, Emmy Rossum, writer-director Paul Haggis, Jessica Walter, Rosie Perez, Zach Braff, Marin Ireland, Linda Emond, David Hyde Pierce, Victor Garber, Alicia Silverstone, Josh Hamilton, director-choreographer Rob Ashford, Amanda Peet, Linda Lavin with Sarah Paulson, Martha Plimpton, Stacy Keach, Alan Cumming, Josh Hamilton, Andrew Lippa, Laura Niemi, Maggie Siff and, wisely ducking the photographers, an underdressed Toby Maguire (replete with toothpick!).