‘Red’: Art and Life at the John Drew

Set in 1958 and 1959, in Mark Rothko’s New York studio
John Logan’s play “Red,” about Mark Rothko, stars Victor Slezak, center, and Christian Scheider. It will continue at Guild Hall through June 8.

If you love gripping theater in an intimate setting that challenges you to think, stop reading right now and call the box office of the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall to make reservations for “Red,” the Tony Award-winning play currently being revived there.

The play, by John Logan, with one act and just two characters, is about ideas, philosophy, art, and life. It is set in 1958 and 1959, in Mark Rothko’s New York studio, as he works on a series of massive murals commissioned for the Four Seasons restaurant in the brand-new Seagram Building. Throughout, Rothko (Victor Slezak) battles with his conscience, personified by his young assistant (Christian Scheider). 

Mr. Logan has said that a trip to the Tate Museum in London, where the murals were on display, inspired the writing of the play. He incorporates the murals into it almost as a third character, both on the stage and in the audience’s imagination.

“Red” presents a very specific challenge to the players. Like sex appeal, intellectual gravitas cannot be faked onstage. Either you have it or you don’t, and these two actors have it. It enables them to spar on a visceral level, down and dirty, laying bare the desperation and cruelty of artistic genius and the hopes and ambition of the next generation.

It takes a great artist to play one, and Mr. Slezak is a consummate artist. Building the character from the inside out, his Rothko is by turn viciously bullying, then pathetically vulnerable, a genius tortured by his own mortality.

Mr. Slezak spoke recently of learning his craft under the master teachers of American theater during the 1970s and 1980s, people like Uta Hagen and Stella Adler, whose work, he hopes, can be brought forward to a new generation. With this performance, he does just that.

As Ken, Rothko’s assistant, Mr. Scheider gives as good as he gets. While much of the Rothko character is based on the artist’s own words, with Ken the playwright has no such constraints. Frankly, the appalling secret he reveals to the great man was the one part of the play I was not crazy about, but Mr. Scheider’s forthright performance takes him effortlessly through the shoals. This actor has so much power, he could easily blow the intimate space up during the climactic confrontation scene, but he had a good handle on the reins on Saturday night.

Steven Hamilton does a brilliant job of directing. I did hear one woman say to her companion that “they’re not playing to the audience.” I did not feel that way at all, but I was seated house left while she was seated house right. (The audience, which is limited to 75, sits up on the stage, surrounding the actors.) Maybe it was a sight-line issue — a table, house right, may have impeded her view of the action.

Josh Gladstone and Ellen Myers, the producers, are to be commended for the choice of material. I cannot think of a show more suited to an East Hampton audience.

One caveat. If your intent is to go to the beach, have a few drinks, then catch a show, this is probably not the one for you. It is an intense hour and a half with no intermission. I wanted to bop the person seated to my wife’s left. He was lounging in his chair with his feet stretched right out onto the stage.

If you are serious about art and the theater, however, pick up the phone and get a ticket before they are all gone. “Red” will run through June 8.