“You cannot be an artist until you are civilized; you can’t be civilized until you learn,” says the Mark Rothko character early in John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award-winning play, Red, which, directed by Vivienne Benesch, opened in Playmakers Repertory Company’s Paul Green Theatre on the 22nd of September. The two-man play goes on to explore the 20th century abstract painter’s beliefs about art and art making, and to challenge and counter them via the fictional character of his assistant, Ken, at a crucial time in the latter part of Rothko’s career.

Although it is replete with quotable lines like the above, the script is a little more art history lesson and a little less of a drama than it might have been; it fails to push either its questions or its philosophical points quite as far as they could go. Rothko’s life was so intense, dramatic and messy that it is a little hard to see how the play could be so neat and contained, but then it isn’t really about Rothko, but about the conflict of ideas and ideals that played out in the course of his working on a commission to decorate the dining room of the Four Seasons restaurant in the then-new Seagram’s Building (Mies Van der Rohe and Philip Johnson) on Manhattan’s Park Avenue. The story takes place in 1958 and 1959, when Rothko was obsessively painting the large canvases (far more than could fit in the space) and the era of Abstract Expressionism, in which Rothko had been an important force, was coming to its natural conclusion. Willem de Kooning was still going strong, but Franz Kline’s best work was done, and Jackson Pollock had died, drunk, in a fiery car crash in 1956. A fresh set of bad boys was feverishly working to slay painting on the altar of Pop art and its multiples — and to them, multiples did not mean numerous similar canvases pulsing in silent communion with attentive and contemplative viewers.

So, Rothko, unable to resist the siren call of fame and money, agrees to make paintings that in his heart he knows will be merely decoration, “over-mantels” of the kind he so despises. The bait, for him, was the idea that he’d be creating a unified space, in which the paintings would communicate with each other, and viewers would be free to gaze at them gazing at each other. He’s doing OK with this, beavering away in his basement studio (he likes to control the light), until he hires a young assistant. The studio on stage is another wonderfully realized Jan Chambers design, very realistic, right down to the portable phonograph “playing” records in Robert Dagit’s sound design.

The first fifteen minutes or so of the production are slow going, but eventually enough explication is cleared away, and such action as there is picks up. Stephen Caffrey makes a believable Rothko, nervous, intellectual, steeped in Nietzsche and super-refined aestheticism, and able to speak glibly of the ever-shifting balance between Apollonian and Dionysian forces and passionately about the emotional meanings of colors in their many variants (there’s a marvelous discussion of Matisse’s The Red Studio). Born in 1903 in Russia, Rothko immigrated to the US with his family as a child; he has a worldview entirely different from the young assistant, who would have come to social and artistic consciousness only after World War II. Ken, ably performed by third-year MFA candidate Matt Garner, is awed at first by the famous older painter, but gradually gains the confidence and irritation needed to argue back against Rothko’s proclamations, often turning Rothko’s statements back on him. The child always kills the father, declares Rothko, speaking of the way Abstract Expressionism steamrolled Cubism, and coolly blowing off Picasso, saying, “It’s tragic to become superfluous in your own time.” Pollock didn’t die in a car accident, says the Rothko character. He was ruined by fame and success; he suicided in his Oldsmobile convertible.

By the play’s end (it runs about 90 minutes, in one act), Ken has built up a full head of steam, and holds the mirror up to Rothko, even telling him that the Four Seasons project is his own Oldsmobile convertible. Ultimately, prodded by Ken’s arguments and his own visit to the restaurant, Rothko cancels the commission and returns the fee — and, naturally, fires his assistant, raving about “the tyranny of ‘fine.’”

“Let me tell you something,” Logan has his Rothko say to the assistant, Ken, in trying to explain his action. “We are NOT fine. I am here to stop your heart. I am here to make you think. Not to paint pretty pictures.” This was Rothko’s attitude, but many an artist – painter or playwright – would claim that as his manifesto, and the line is the key to the play.

The real Rothko hid the Four Seasons paintings away for years, dispersing them to museums only very shortly before his own suicide in 1970. He was found in his studio, arms covered in red blood (the play makes eerie use of this scene, but it is only sleep, only paint), the razor nearby. As Rothko fears it would throughout the play, black finally swallowed the red of his life.

But in a way even Rothko was unlikely to have been egotistical enough to expect, his paintings — red and otherwise — have swallowed the blackness of death. They pulse on, image and idea, for anyone who will take the time to look and think. The greatest strength of Logan’s play lies in its encouragement to do just that — with any art.

Red continues through Sunday, October 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.