photo: Johan Persson
With its pronounced lack of subtext and its relentlessly unimaginative seriousness, John Logan's two-hander about painter Mark Rothko and his fresh-faced assistant is certainly of a piece. Due to high production values, chief among them Neil Austin's purposeful lighting, it's also visually compelling. It isn't, unfortunately, especially believable: despite the actors' efforts these are two opposed sides of an argument, not flesh and blood characters. The 90-minute one-act casts Rothko (a committed, focused Alfred Molina) as the self-absorbed last gasp of "serious" art, holding the gates closed against the Pop Art barbarians who are making his work increasingly irrelevant, circa 1958. His speeches, which sound like interview quotes researched and cobbled together, are spat at the generally passive assistant (Eddie Redmayne) for 2/3rd's of the play's 90 minutes. It's like a somber Devil Wears Prada for middlebrow snobs. The teacher/student device is as dramaturgically limp as it sounds, more so once the assistant reveals a backstory that scores a perfect zero for believability. The play eventually gets going in its last half hour, when the assistant finally stands up to the bullying boss and calls him a sell out for making pictures to adorn the new Four Seasons restaurant. It isn't the old art vs. commerce conflict that gives late life to the play but the overdue deeper depiction of Rothko - he's suddenly exposed to us as an old man who sees that the times have moved beyond him and who worries how time will judge him. It isn't hard to be moved by that, even in a contrivance such as this.