Art isn’t easy in Goodman’s searing ‘Red’

Patrick Andrews and Edward Gero get to work in John Logan’s “Red.”

The creation of art is a daunting thing. Not only is the process most usually taxing (especially if the creative muses aren’t hitting you at the moment — and you’re on deadline), but, when it’s done (and how do you even know when it’s done?) you have to send it out into the big, scary world. Otherwise your work isn’t valid.

As an ambitious young artist once said in another great theatrical work about the creation of art, “A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head. If no one gets to see it, it’s as good as dead. It has to come to life!”

But what if people don’t like what you’ve created? What if they mock it or dismiss it? Or, worse yet, what if the only reason they’re drawn to it is because some expert advised them it would be a “good investment”?

In John Logan’s searing play, Red, iconic abstract painter Mark Rothko (Edward Gero) despises — and, to an extent, fears — the lazy passivity of modern society (the play takes place at the cusp of the ’60s). “Everything becomes everything else and it’s all nice and pretty and likable,” rages Rothko to his young assistant Ken (Patrick Andrews). “Where’s the discernment? Where’s the arbitration that separates what I like from what I respect?”

Speaking of respect, that’s one of the core themes in Logan’s compact-yet-epic two-hander. When Ken, a budding artist with an inner fire that burns just as brightly as Rothko’s, begins working for the temperamental artist, he learns that Rothko’s latest mural series is a high-priced commission piece for the ritzy Four Seasons restaurant. Ken’s repulsed. Rothko’s defensive. The core conflict emerges. While some artists may starve for their craft, argues Rothko, why should he? If you’re going to be so arrogant about the impact of your work on society, fires back Ken, at least recognize the irony of the situation.

“At least Warhol gets the joke,” Ken sneers. Which sets Rothko into a tailspin.

In a series of tightly staged scenes under Robert Falls’ sure-handed direction, the arguments play out like an intricate fencing game. Your mind spins because Ken and Rothko deliver their cases with such intent and clarity, your opinion keeps teeter-tottering. Is art only valid if it challenges you to think deep, dark things (such as Rothko’s works), or can art also serve a more simple purpose: to please? To what extent is an artist’s original intent impacted based on the location and lighting of the piece? Is it detrimental to an artist’s reputation if he commoditizes his work? Is it elitist if an artist looks down on his audience for their lack of comprehension and discernment, or well-qualified rage?

As tight as this 100-minute, intermissionless play is, there is some excess — mostly the unnecessary overdramatization of Ken’s backstory. Though expertly played out by Andrews, the childhood trauma he reveals to Rothko seems superfluous and obvious. Ken doesn’t like white because it reminds him of snow when the horrific incident happened, and he doesn’t like the color red because it reminds him of — you guessed it — blood. Who cares? I’m more interested in learning what makes Rothko tick and seeing how his self-absorbed world shifts as this young man dares to challenge it.

At any rate, Goodman’s incredibly well-acted production will keep you talking and thinking long into the night.

“Red” plays through October 30 at the Goodman Theatre. More info >

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