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"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," the saying goes.
Attributed to everyone from Elvis Costello to Laurie Anderson and comedian Martin Mull, the tart phrase conjures the circle of quicksand that swallows everything within reach when people discuss what makes a painting great, a pop song trite, or a long novel ponderous. These conversations are often fun, but rarely take meaningful form.
What, then, is comparable to writing a play about art?
John Logan's 2009 play "Red," which opened Friday at Salt Lake Acting Company in production directed by Keven Myhre, centers exclusively on the legacy of abstract painter Mark Rothko, but its ultimate reach extends far beyond any one artist.
Rather than draw a boundary around the quicksand of discussions about art, it comes perilously close to replicating the feeling that you're trapped inside a room with two contentious graduate students, and one very large pot of espresso.
Similar to a Rothko painting itself, the canvas here is high and broad, even if set entirely in the painter's Bowery studio in New York City. Only two actors fill out the stage: Morgan Lund, in a bracing portrayal of Rothko, and Ted Powell as doe-eyed assistant Ken.
The play's keystone touch is a work-in-progress that hangs invisibly between the actors on stage and the audience. It's a sounding board for Rothko, who gazes straight at it before incessant bouts of kvetching about the current generation of artists, and the filthy tide of consumerism that's claimed Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso.
"A picture lives by companionship. It dies by the same token. It's a risky act to send art out into the world," he warns his charge. "There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend. [That] one day the black will swallow the red."
If you're familiar with Rothko a brief outline of his life and work is all you need it's great fun watching Lund tuck into Chinese food, puff cigarettes and harp endlessly on assistant Ken. Ominously, he brags that the end of his life will be unequivocal in nature. If you like a good listening to a good argument, you'll love "Red."
The axis on which the drama turns is the infamous commission for murals to hang above the dining tables of the Seagram Building's Four Seasons restaurant. Rothko's confident his murals, burning with the intensity of a silent furnace, will turn the place into "a temple." Ken, crafting his best riposte for last, isn't so sure.
Far from a paean, "Red" grinds home the vexing contradictions of Rothko's soul. Despite his awe and devotion for an artistic vision that will do the human soul justice, Logan gives us a misanthrope who couldn't bear to see his work surrendered to a common audience.
"Red" spends vast amounts of time with Rothko and Ken talking about color, symbolism, philosophy, and in an odd turn revelations of personal tragedy that fails to bond them. They argue. They prime a canvas. It's as if art looms so large that it blinds Rothko to everything else.
Powell plays Ken in a measured arc that follows logically from naive apprentice to an understudy who's had it up to here. "You're a solipsistic bully!" he tells his boss. Any sensible audience will agree.
The play saves its final moments for an unveiling in which Rothko realizes the error of his ways, but not before he can turn the tables on Ken once more.
More a play about the passing of the torch than art alone, "Red" uses Rothko mostly as a vessel for a larger message about where artistic inspiration beats loudest.
In a play as heavy on exposition as this one, that's fine. But like the countless conversations between esthetes in coffee shops "Red" could have spent less time talking, and more time telling a story.
R A fine dramatic read on the impulses that drive artists and great art, but fasten your seat belts for lots of dialogue with little story.
When • Reviewed on Feb. 10; continues 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday, then plays Wednesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; Sundays, 1 and 6 p.m. through March 4.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.
Running time • 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets • $14-$41. Call 801-363-7522 or visit http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for more information.