John Logan’s ruminations on art, the universe, and everything appears in a handsome but perplexing limited run at International City Theatre in Long Beach. The production is up to the company’s usual high standards – well-designed, colorful, and nicely lit. Tony Abatemarco and Patrick Stafford are solid as Mark Rothko and his assistant Ken, declaiming, strutting, storming, pronouncing, and even painting as part of “…captur[ing] the dynamic relationship between an artist and his creations.” The pull quote is from The New York Times and the play has won six Tony Awards. The production will be a good introduction of ICT to those who don’t normally range that far south for theatre.
“Red” meets the needs of many producing organizations trying to hold an art form together under daunting odds. Two characters, in New York on one set, one act, and a noble theme that a shrinking core of loyal, paying audience members can’t resist. Most have looked at modern art and wondered what the hell it was all about and couldn’t a three year-old, an elephant, or a three-year old elephant have done it? “Red” touches on that. It also tries to touch on each generational conflicts and the pursuit of truth in the face of commerce and politics.
So why does it seem like we’ve seen this before? Because, we have. Exits and Entrances, Master Class (also recently at ICT), Copenhagen, and Taking Sides come to mind. Orson’s Shadow has a larger cast but is in the same orbit. Homegrown equivalents include imaginings of Frank Lloyd Wright, the Fitzgeralds, Hemingway, and soprano Julia Migenes portraying herself.
Let’s consider what Abatemarco and Stafford pronounce apart from how they pronounce it. Logan’s script does little to distinguish this play from its equivalents. The actors under caryn desai’s direction hit all the points when and where they’re supposed to. They are pensive, didactic, fretful, and tortured at precise intervals. Famous names are dropped, F-bombs fly, each gets a ripe monologue or two. Since no swordfighting is appropriate, each gets to orally parry and thrust against the other. Rothko takes the first round, fictional assistant Ken takes the last. The ponderings on Art and Artists might be right, they might be wrong and the play has it covered both ways. There’s enough history to excuse the fiction and vice versa. Had it lasted longer than one act, Logan would have had problems on his hands and, so, he kept it brief. The opening weekend audience loved it.
So, what’s perplexing about any of this? The fuss and the attention to a play which resembles SportsNight for the arts lover. We can acknowledge if not accept that many such as Myra Breckinridge of the LA Times see the Tonys as the alpha and omega of theatre. That this script won six of those awards (including Best Play) makes us wonder about the competition that year, if this is just a bankable formula, or if Logan’s screenwriting cachet carries the needed weight.
There have been some thought-provoking locally generated works that have grappled with big ideas, even those outside of art, and done so with nuance and an acknowledgment of ambiguity. Kronis and Alger take a whimsical approach with their mixmastering of Inge, Gogol, Strindberg, and Williams. (Yes, they also take on Chekhov. Unfortunately, every blasted theatre in LA takes on Chekhov.) Nancy Keystone’s Apollo: Parts 1 and 2 oscillated between raw brilliance and extreme ponderousness through a long gestation. The show as ultimately presented managed to contrast the earnest motivations of technologists and the long-term, unforeseen consequences and subversion of their work.
The best example of a “big ideas” play still lies with “Arcadia.” Random processes, nonlinear dynamics, and chaos theory which were so fresh when Stoppard wrote it have quietly become respectable. They’re taught to eager undergraduates not only in physics but in economics, econometrics, and any field where large sets of data come into play. A staggering amount of research is done quietly and secretively in companies doggedly mining and processing these datasets, finding patterns, en route to manipulating markets, economies, and populations. By design or by accident, Stoppard extracted what he needed from the science and spun it into a beguiling, if slightly long, story. Maybe there’s a butterfly flapping somewhere that will engender the next one.