- OnStage Connecticut Critic
The Westport Country Playhouse aims to tackle the question, “What is Art?” with their season openers in repertory: Art by Yasmina Reza and Red by John Logan. Both shows offer opinions about what that definition means: to the artist, to the connoisseur, to the viewer, and to the audience. Because these pieces speak to the meaning of Art with a capital “A”, I will attempt to review in repertory.
The fiery drama Red takes place in the late 1950s in the New York City studio of Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, who hires a new assistant to help with the artist’s largest commission yet: a series of paintings to go into the new Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram building. When I discovered that Red was centered around Rothko’s Seagram murals, I was beyond delighted. It is one of my favorite works of art. Rothko wanted his paintings to create a place for contemplation and he succeeded. The murals envelope you in their dark maroon arms and compel you to stay with them.
Red is off like a shot and blasts you through its entire ninety-minute run. It is intense, bold, and poignant, carried almost entirely by Stephen Rowe as Rothko. He plays the cantankerous artist brilliantly: Mr. Rowe demonstrates an obvious deep understanding of Rothko’s demons. His few, quieter, contemplative moments in front of his canvases are some of the most telling; Rowe’s facial expressions conveyed the tragedy and pain found in Rothko’s brushstrokes. I think Mr. Rowe understood Rothko better than Rothko understood Rothko: no small feat, given the artist’s rumored unchecked bipolar disorder and well-documented mercurial moods. Patrick Andrews as Rothko’s assistant/ protégé, Ken, is a masterful sparring partner in the biting battles of words. His final detonation at Rothko, complete with a foaming mouth, was electrically terrifying.
In contrast, the quirky comedramafarcity (my new word) Art takes places in a flat where a newly-acquired painting is the center of attention: a white canvas with a few white lines by a famous (fictional) artist. The painting’s new owner proudly shows the work to his friends, who don’t know what to make of the piece or their friend’s taste.
Marc (Benton Greene) is horrified that his friend, Serge (John Skelley) has purchased this seemingly blank canvas for 200,000 Euros. Marc and Serge both try to get their other friend, Yvan (Sean Dugan), to see their side. Yvan plays to both of them, claiming to think the painting is a fraud to Marc, but claiming to feel a resonance in the work to Serge. These three men turn this seemingly objective discussion of art and connoisseurship into an insult volley over a white canvas net; “an apocalypse over a white square,” as Yvan points out. The play is composed of conflict.
Reza has created three characters that are not terribly likeable; their antics remind me of the “Housewives of New York City”: shallow, self-absorbed, and the center of their own universe. The play itself is a bit odd and, frankly, I’m not sure I liked the play. However, it’s the level of ridiculousness and how real the actors make the dialogue feel is what compels me (and the rest of the audience) to keep watching. Kudos to all three performers in this show for coercing me to stay to see what happens next. Turns out, it is worth the wait.
At the climax of the play, Serge asks Yvan for a felt-tipped pen and Serge then hands the pen to Marc. Something incredible happened: as Serge holds out that pen to Marc, the entire audience goes dead silent: the air is completely sucked out of the theater. All around me, I hear whispered pleas: “Don’t do it!” We all are taken in by the joke. We all believe it is art. But is it art? Is it a joke? Did we just all totally get taken for a ride for the last 90 minutes? Here's the thing: getting that kind of reaction out of an entire theater full of people means that this is a powerful piece of theatre.
This whole white painting thing reminds me of this silly joke from my childhood:
- [Person B brings out a blank white canvas and sets it on an easel]
- Person A: “What is it?”
- Person B: “It’s a cow eating grass.”
- Person A: “Where’s the grass?”
- Person B: “Well, the cow has eaten all of it!”
- Person A: “And where is the cow?”
- Person B: “Well, you don’t expect the cow to hang around after she’s eaten all of the grass, now do you?”
Too much of the Nickelodeon channel as a child? Perhaps, but you get the idea. Art is what you see. Art is what you make of it. It’s what I see in the Rothko Seagram murals; it’s what Serge sees in the white-on-white work; it’s what the audience sees as Marc wields that felt-tipped pen. What do you see? Find out by checking out these two thought-provoking shows running through the end of May: Red on odd-numbered days and Art on even-numbered days.