For Art's Sake

Review of Red and ‘Art’ at Westport Country Playhouse

“…all of art is a portrait of an idea”—Mark Rothko

Two Tony-winning plays are playing in repertory at Westport Country Playhouse, both directed by Mark Lamos. Red, by John Logan, which opened Saturday night, and ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza, which opened on Sunday, both treat fraught relations with fine art. The first, from the point of view of the maker, specifically the great mid-twentieth-century painter Mark Rothko (Stephen Rowe) and a fictional assistant, Ken (Patrick Andrews); the second, from the point of view of the buyer, Serge (John Skelley), and his bemused buddies, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan).

Of the two, ‘Art’, well-known as a play performed all over the world and generally a hit with audiences, is easily the more entertaining and likable play. Red, boasting a great set and Rowe’s intense rendering of Rothko, has no sense of humor—like Rothko himself seemingly—and only a weakly realized “agon” between mentor and assistant to recommend it as drama.

It’s not that Red sells Rothko’s ideas short—though hearing someone in a position of authority behave in so surly and dismissive a manner certainly won’t win over non-admirers—but rather that it makes Rothko’s modus operandi seem inflated, vain, misguided, and ultimately on the wrong side of history. Or, if one wants to be kinder, it suggests—scarcely a new idea—that each new generation of significant artists “kills” the previous generation. So, as those considered Abstract Expressionists—like Rothko—killed off the Cubists, so the Pop artists killed off the Abstract Expressionists. That’s true enough if we treat art as fashion, but as an assessment of the art of the twentieth century it’s extremely facile. And yet when Ken, considerably beside himself after taking as much abuse from Rothko as he can stand, offers this as an insight, it’s meant to feel telling.

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The best thing about Red is seeing Rowe make Rothko in his studio come alive for us, a studio so well-rendered in Allen Moyer’s set you almost believe New York city is right outside its papered-over windows. Rothko, by all accounts, could indeed be difficult and had an uncompromising approach to his work—elements of his personality that come out here but without much sense of what he is trying to achieve with his work (viewers who think that the slapdash “paintings” hung on the stage have anything to do with Rothko’s work will be sadly mislead). The disconnect between Rothko’s work and the play, however, seems to be the point, as its story (such as it is) is told from the point of view of Ken. If only Ken had a point of view.

We learn he is an artist, though we never see evidence of it, nor do we ever get a sense that he, like Rothko, is bent upon achieving something that goes beyond himself. He tells the painter, after taking a job as his assistant, that his favorite artists are Pollock and Picasso, and eventually he defends Pop art because it’s fun. It might be more interesting if Ken defended figurative work or advocated that Rothko dispense with shapes altogether, but as it is he’s a cipher not given enough depth to be a character. It’s not even correct to say that he is skeptical of Rothko’s work since his reactions are to the man, primarily.

As a man, Rowe makes Rothko memorable by attitude more than by statement. He babbles about Nietzsche and puts down other painters, critics, and the general public in a manner that comes from an essentially depressive view of the modern world. Rothko actually had an interesting personal history but none of that matters here. What we get is, thanks to Rowe’s portrayal, a believable Rothko in, thanks to Logan’s script, an unrewarding situation.

Marc (Benton Greene), Serge (John Skelley) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Marc (Benton Greene), Serge (John Skelley) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Perhaps the most obvious point of transition between Red and ‘Art’ is when Rothko, bemused, speaks of how buyers want “a Rothko” or to collect “Rothkos,” so that he has become an object, synonymous with the objects he creates. In ‘Art’, a dermatologist named Serge buys “an Antrios,” for 200,000 euros. The assumption is that, like many dilettantes who bought Rothkos when his name became synonymous with modern art, Serge is buying the reputation more than the object. His friend Marc is aghast. The painting, which looks to be solid white, though allegedly possessing some white stripes on a white ground, or perhaps even some other muted colors, is deemed by Marc to be “shit.” The two eventually bring into their disagreement a mutual friend Yvan, who is in the midst of preparing to get married and who tries to be fair to each man’s point of view, a strategy that only fuels the fire when it fails.

What makes the play rewarding is the command of dialogue. Reza, as translated from French by Christopher Hampton, writes a stylized form of speech that can range from direct appeals to the audience, to rapid-fire ripostes and undercutting between characters, to a somewhat middlebrow version of highbrow discourse, to a hilarious monologue to his friends in which Yvan vents on the difficulty of getting all the women implicated in the wedding—his fiancée and her stepmother, and his own mother and stepmother—to agree. In fact, it is that monologue, which lets Dugan begin to run away with the play, that happily shifts us from the somewhat antiseptic discussion of the painting.

Which is fine, as the idea that this play is about art does it a disservice. All along we suspect that the difference in tastes about art is simply an easy notational device to characterize the three men. Serge, the others well know, is a would-be modernist; Marc likes landscapes; Yvan has a sentimental attachment to a canvas his father painted. What makes for the drama here is that Serge’s willingness to pay so much for such a work puts him into a different category. He’s attempting to rise above Marc’s conception of him by aligning himself with intellectuals (who use novel words like “deconstruction”—the play dates from the late 1990s, after all). And the sense of how our friends don’t remain fixed in the niches to which we assign them is what galls Marc and makes the play come alive as each airs his griefs with the others.

Serge (John Skelley), Marc (Benton Greene), Yvan (Sean Dugan) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Serge (John Skelley), Marc (Benton Greene), Yvan (Sean Dugan) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

The comic pay-off of the play helps to undercut its own pretensions, though it also risks aligning itself with the tactics of the easy word-of-mouth consensus that is more relevant to theater than to the art world. Riza is never in danger of deconstructing the comedy of manners—and tastes—that is ‘Art’’s biggest selling point, but one can’t help feeling that, in French, she might get closer to something more pointed. The play, to me, seems underwritten by the sociological treatment of bourgeois “cultural capital” in the work of Pierre Bourdieu (hence, the specifics of each man’s occupation), and so is a way of showing how each man’s taste fulfills a certain function. The best moment, as theater, is when the three men share a small plate of almonds, for then their similarity is inescapable.

Mark Lamos’ productions of the two plays is best when it lets us dwell on such non-verbal moments—such as the covering of a canvas with a red undercoat that Rothko and Ken undertake simultaneously. In bringing the two plays together in repertory, Lamos underscores a telling moment in each: Ken’s defense of Pop art against Abstract Expressionism is replayed in ‘Art’ when Marc draws a cartoon figure upon Serge’s minimalist “masterpiece.” In both cases, the notion that art should amuse or please is for a moment lifted above its ability to confound or be profound. And yet, even then, both plays keep alive the sense of art as an irritant and a confrontation, and each play is deepened by its relation to the other.

And that, we may say, is the idea.

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)

Ken (Patrick Andrews), Rothko (Stephen Rowe) (photo: Carol Rosegg)


By John Logan
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Patrick Andrews; Stephen Rowe

By Yasmina Reza
Directed by Mark Lamos

Cast: Sean Dugan; Benton Greene; John Skelley

Scenic Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: Candice Donnelly; Lighting Design: Matthew Richards; Sound Design: David Budries; Fight Director: Michael Rossmy; Props Master: Rachel Kenner; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel CSA; Production Stage Manager: Megan Smith

Westport Country Playhouse
May 3-29, 2016