Westport Playhouse's 'Art' And 'Red' True Conversation Starters

Seeing 'Art' and 'Red' back-to-back at Westport Country Playhouse is a meaningful experience

To open the Westport Country Playhouse's 86th season, Mark Lamos had the artful concept of presenting a gallery of plays about modern art and the people who appreciate it.

John Logan's "Red" is a two-person drama about the artist Mark Rothko in 1958 and '59, working on a commission for the hoity-toity Four Seasons restaurant while he articulates his thoughts about art and life to his new assistant. Yasmina Reza's "Art" is a three-person comedy about a dermatologist who buys a painting — fine white lines on an all-white canvas — for 20,000 euros, a purchase which causes a rift between him and his friends.

Other than a shared obsession with modern art, the two plays aren't exactly complementary, and the Playhouse doesn't force unnecessary comparisons. "Art" and "Red" are given separate casts, are presented on separate nights (with no back-to-back "marathon" opportunities) and approach the subject of art and its value from opposite directions. The theater's subscriber base is not obligated to see both shows; they view the show that falls on the date in their subscription package and can purchase tickets to the other one for a 15 percent discount. (A similar discount is given to non-subscribers who want to buy tickets for both shows.)

Seeing them back-to-back, however, is a meaningful experience.

Director Lamos has found a style and pacing that suits both plays and links them quietly to each other. Allan Moyle has come up with a set design that lets the "Red" studio workshop subtly hover in the background of the clean white apartment setting of "Art." Both shows have costumes designed by Candice Donnelly, lighting by Matthew Richards, sound by David Budries, props by Rachel Kenner and fights choreographed by Michael Rossmy. But those fights and lights and white shirts behave differently. The petulant pals in "Art" are dressed to go out on the town and make their points with fine-tip markers. The art-makers in "Red" get down and dirty, splattering themselves with the red paint that represents their blood, sweat and tears.

"Art" was a sensation when it was first produced in the mid-1990s. Crisply translated by Christopher Hampton ("Les Liaisons Dangereuse"), it ran for eight years in London (sustained by the novel concept of completely recasting the show every three months) and for a year and a half on Broadway. A national tour starring Judd Hirsch came to New Haven's Shubert in 2000; Hartford's TheaterWorks presented its own production later that same year. When the show's performance rights trickled down to small theaters, you could at one point catch "Art" at three different Connecticut venues in the same week.

Productions of "Art" can be gauged on how much the audience is primed for the first appearance of the hapless character of Yvan, after the play's simple plot has already been set in motion. At Westport, Yvan's entrance gets a nice, big, honest laugh, which means that the groundwork has been well laid — Serge is inordinately proud of his purchase, Marc snipes at it skeptically, and they both expect Yvan to take their respective side.

"Art" is less about art than it is about the destructive effect of speaking one's mind. At the beginning of the play, Marc (Benton Greene, moving smoothly from loose to intense and back again) coolly dismisses Serge's prized painting. Serge (played by John Skelley with a calm smugness that is believably irritating to his chums without being overly grating for the audience) takes umbrage. Yvan (given a jittery comic physicality by Sean Dugan) is embroiled in the real-life anxieties of his impending marriage and related wedding-planning, attempts to broker peace between his aesthete friends and ends up being attacked by both of them.

The main thing being discussed is a work of art, but "Art" is really about longtime relationships that may disintegrate over differences of taste and style. "Red," on the other hand, is the story of two working artists who are cautious about forming too strong a bond, lest it impair their artistic sensibilities.

"Art" is staged snappily, one scene flowing quickly into the next. "Red" by contrast, has long bouts of silence. In John Logan's play, art isn't a subtext for other disagreements but a subject that keeps other discussions at bay. Rothko tells his new assistant from the get-go that he's there as an employee, not a protege or confidant. It doesn't quite work out that way, but Logan depicts the creation of fine art as hard work — mixing the paint, priming the canvases — with a few bursts of exhilaration when the paint is actually applied.

For better or worse, Stephen Rowe, who played this role previously on Broadway, gives Rothko a matter-of-fact, understated, working-man's demeanor. He's not showy. Though Rothko does sometimes yell and throw things, this is a measured, controlled performance. As his enigmatic assistant Ken, Patrick Andrews adopts a cocky air and attitude slightly reminiscent of a young Michael J. Fox.

The engaging conversation in "Art" about valued objects and emotional attachments will ring true for Westport's gallery-going crowd. (Several local galleries even advertise in the show's program.) "Red," while set in the late '50s, when abstract expressionism was being challenged by the new pop art movement, nevertheless seems rather current, especially in Connecticut where buildings designed by Four Seasons architect Philip Johnson (an unseen character in the play) can still be seen in New Haven, New Canaan and elsewhere. In "Red," Rothko bristles at the popularity of his contemporaries such as Jackson Pollock (who died in 1956 in a car accident that Rothko labels a "lazy suicide"). Nowadays, Rothko's work routinely fetches bigger auction prices than Pollock's, with works by either artist selling in the tens of millions.

Both "Art" and "Red" give you conversational fodder for the next time you visit an art museum. Better still, they might give you insight into your friendships and work relationships. There's an art in that.

"ART" BY YASMINA REZA AND "RED" BY JOHN LOGAN, directed by Mark Lamos are performed in repertory through May 29 at the Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. "Red" plays on odd-numbered days, through May 29, "Art" on even-numbered days through May 28. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $50, with a 15 percent discount if tickets to both plays are purchased together. Information: 203-227-4177, westportplayhouse.org.

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