In John Logan's Red (presented by London's Donmar Warehouse at the Mark Taper Forum) and Jamie Pachino's The Return to Morality (the Production Company at the Lex), the central characters both are male artists squinting in the glare of success. They've both changed their conspicuously Jewish names in order to slide more easily into the American mainstream. And they both stand accused of gaping hypocrisy by their respective biographer-playwrights. In each case, our protagonist staggers through torment stemming from who he really is, as opposed to what others believe him to be. In each, too, you have to wonder if his descent into hell might have started with the seemingly benign decision to change his name.
In the case of Red, Logan's two-character, Tony Award–winning drama, the focus is on Marcus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, a Russian émigré from what is now Latvia, who arrived in the United States in 1913, when he was 10. We know him as Mark Rothko, who left behind a childhood in pogrom-haunted Europe for New York, high school in Oregon and then Yale University, which he attended on academic scholarship. There, he started a satirical magazine, The Yale Saturday Evening Post, lampooning what he perceived to be the stuffiness and racism of his WASPY environs.
Famous today as an abstract expressionist, a label he rejected, Rothko reportedly spoke four languages and followed in his father's footsteps, advocating for workers' rights and women's rights. You won't find much of this biography in Logan's play, and in many ways that's to its credit. Logan's focus — and the source of his play's grandeur — is more existential than psychological, despite the drama's captivating showdown between the aging Rothko (Alfred Molina) and a fictional young assistant named Ken (Jonathan Groff).
As a Talmudic scholar, Rothko spent the larger part of his life railing against the pernicious effects of consumerism. And this brings us to the jocular, fact-based premise of Logan's play: Late in his career, Rothko was commissioned by the beverage company Joseph Seagram & Sons to provide paintings for the company's new Park Avenue digs, designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson. The paintings were to hang in the building's luxury restaurant, the Four Seasons. According to Logan's play, Rothko accepted $35,000 for the project, money he didn't really need at that point in his illustrious career.
Through the course of the satirical drama, set in Rothko's Bowery studio from 1958 to 1959, he's preparing the paintings. He keeps telling Ken that his work will turn the Four Seasons into a shrine, where the blocks of color resonate with a life of their own. Ken can only reply with the most obvious rhetorical question: "In a restaurant?"
This dispute is the centerpiece of an Oedipal conflict: Ken is an aspiring young painter whose work is ignored by the master, who, with Molina's lumbering bluster, is also a master of withering condescension and electrifying bravado. "Who the fuck are you to tell me that I need more red!" he bellows at the chastened Ken, who can only glare in quivering silence until Rothko's tantrum passes. (Molina, director Michael Grandage and the design team are all intact from the 2010 Broadway production.)
As the months roll by, Ken starts to spar back with growing confidence, pointing out Rothko's hubris and enveloping solipsism — and tapping the core of his fear: that before accomplishing all he wants to, Rothko the formalist is being pushed aside by flippant young turks Warhol and Rauschenberg, in exactly the same way Rothko previously shoved out the cubists. Not to mention the rather too obvious contradiction between railing against the intellectually vapid elite and their consumerism, even while painting a mural for a restaurant that literally caters to them. Good sir, what do you really believe?
Their debate, thanks to riveting performances from Molina and Groff, is a beautiful compilation of arguments, ultimately about nothing less than everything that matters and about nothing more certain than the passage of time. Rothko's explanation of what he does, and why he does it, comes through as lucidly in his behavior as in his strident sarcasm — words and attitudes then dismantled by Ken with equal ferocity and conviction.
Each man is a morass of contradictions, fighting against the other for his very soul. Meanwhile, as classical music plays on a rickety phonograph, we see paint splashed onto canvas and paintings that themselves become characters, physical embodiments of Rothko's primal fear of "the black pushing out the red" — black being death, or one's own shortcomings, and red being the beauty of life.
Red is a better play than Yasmina Reza's Art, which opened on Broadway in 1998 and appeared in Los Angeles the following year. Whereas Art is a satire of people who buy modern art, Logan's play actually builds a case for what's so much easier to ridicule. That case is driven home by the power and the glory of Molina's performance.
Jamie Pachino's contemporary satire The Return to Morality, in its West Coast premiere by the Production Company, studies the agonies of a fictional author — Arthur Kellerman on his birth certificate, now changed to Arthur Kellogg (Kevin Weisman). He has formulated a political treatise arguing that people have stopped listening to ideas, instead merely reacting to tweets and incendiary sound bites removed from context. The fuel of modern discourse, he postulates, is ill-informed rage.
Hoping to drive his point home through sarcasm, Kellogg's book, The Return to Morality, parodies the arguments and doublespeak of the right with extended arguments comprising hate speech.
The opening scene finds Kellogg in the office of an oily publisher named Le Becque (Jim Hanna), who exults over the book's best-seller potential, blind to the writer's satirical intent. They agree to market the book as serious and only later admit that the whole thing is a hoax.
Published as nonfiction, the book lands a rave review in The New York Times as a brilliant exegesis from the extreme right. Kellogg's lefty Brit wife (Catherine O'Connor), though, starts to feel queasy. And after revolting radio and talk-show appearances, in which Kellogg — aping the caricature à la Andy Kaufman — pumps his fist at his own anti-Semitic jokes, the author finds himself on 60 Minutes being pilloried by Lesley Stahl (Jennifer Lynn Davis). "And why did you change your name?" she asks him, and the question harkens back to the heart of the matter for both Arthur Kellogg and Mark Rothko: How do you change your name and keep your soul?
Six actors play almost two dozen roles, mostly with finesse, under Mark L. Taylor's staging. The anchor is Weisman's endearing, physically odd and slightly bewildered Arthur Kellogg.
The play is at its best when it shows the circus nightmare of making a joke that you think is clear, and having it so woefully misunderstood that you stand embraced by people you loathe, and reviled by those you admire.
Yet the play takes on some painful contortions in order to drive home that point. Even Kellogg's doctor, active in the Anti-Defamation League, refuses to treat him because of his book — the first in too many plot twists that grow increasingly strained.
The play is enjoyable but not believable — its generalities are more persuasive than its specifics.
RED | By John Logan | A Donmar Warehouse production presented by Center Theatre Group
at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave.,
dwntwn. | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat, 2:30 & 8 p.m.;
Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through Sept. 9. | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org
THE RETURN TO MORALITY | By Jamie Pachino | Presented by the Production Company at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Sept. 8. | (800) 838-3006 | theprodco.com