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David Beck and Patrick Lawlor - Photo by Doug Abdelnour

"Thrilling, Mind-Expanding Theater! 
 -Broadwayworld (Bruce Apar)
"Triumphant! Hats Off to Owen Thompson and Bram Lewis for Lighting up the Schoolhouse Theater once again!"
-Christopher Rothko
"The Schoolhouse Theater is Roaring Back!"
-Assemblymember Chris Burdick
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Review: RED at The Schoolhouse Theater

by Bruce Apar Apr. 20, 2023  

Have you ever hung out with a painter in his studio? I don't mean just any painter, but an immortal - with a mural-size ego and volcanic reputation to match? I haven't either. But I feel like I just did, thanks to the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, where I spent 90 enthralling minutes in the company of such an artist and his assistant.

The play is Red. The artist is famously mercurial Mark Rothko (Patrick Lawlor). The (fictional) assistant is Ken (David Beck). The total experience is a gift to local theater-goers.

Key to the appeal of this six-time Tony-decorated work by the estimable John Logan -- whose diverse writing range includes a couple of Bond movies -- is that your enjoyment is not dependent on being an art aficionado. Not at all.

You don't even need to ever have heard of Mark Rothko. On purely its own terms,
Red -- directed with masterly brushstrokes by Schoolhouse Artistic Director Owen Thompson -- is thrilling, mind-expanding theater that plumbs the human condition with vibrant dramaturgy, acting, and stagecraft.


You'll leave Schoolhouse Theater with an entertaining education in the colorful and complex palette that is the human condition.

Rothko left his indelible mark as a galvanizing force in abstract expressionism, his style characterized by rectangular swaths of black and red and self-made shades in between.

To the unimpressed, his paintings earn the dismissive pejorative of "fuzzy rectangles." To art world cognoscenti, notably those flush with cash, a Rothko is so prized they will part with tens of millions of their dollars to own one.

The play is set in the late 1950s, when we catch Rothko at work on a career-defining commission from iconic architect Philip Johnson to create massive murals for a high-powered, elegant new Manhattan restaurant named Four Seasons.

In this portrait of the artist as a tortured soul of Shakesperean proportion, we learn Rothko, paradoxically, does not suffer gladly Rothko collectors whose interest hangs on bragging rights for having his oils prominently hoisted above their mantelpieces as a badge of elitism. Rothko in fact found such shallowness and showiness more a repudiation of his work than an honest appreciation and understanding of it.

Into this - let's call it Rothkoco - world steps earnest new assistant Ken, an aspiring artist whose job description seems to have included, "must tolerate being humiliated and patronized." Ken is there to mix paint, apply primer, clean up, fetch Chinese take-out and generally prostrate himself humbly in all manner of groveling. High on the list of things Ken is not welcome to do, in Rothko's words ... "By what right do you express an opinion of my work." That is the kind of feral creature whom Ken, and by extension the audience, is dealing with.


Rothko's self-described goal was to fill the spiritual emptiness of his viewers with a myth of his own making. Being an artist, he says, is 90% thinking and 10% painting. He wanted viewers of his pictures to bond with them in the rising heat of emotion, not merely admire them at a cool remove, which is how he felt about "representational" art such as daVinci's Mona Lisa.

Rothko was as much intellectual as artist, quizzing Ken on his familiarity with the likes of Freud, Sophocles and, especially, Nietzsche and his The Birth of Tragedy. Keeping banker's hours of 9-5, Rothko thinks and paints to a continuous underscore of classical music spinning on a phonograph, paintbrush nestled in one hand, ever-present tumbler of Johnnie Walker Scotch cupped in the other. Ken, by contrast, is a jazz buff with a decided taste for pop art (Rothko's nemesis) and little taste for liquid spirits.

And if Ken has illusions of being mentored in how to create great art, Rothko's agenda is expressed to his charge as, "I am here to make you think, not make pretty pictures."

Author John Logan also is here to make us think through his protean talent for stage managing big ideas with a writer's sleight of hand that locks us in to every moment, big and small. In Red, that includes Logan's ability to engage the audience in watching paint dry -- literally. We are privy to the actors priming a large canvas, with real paint, in real time, as if we had a stake in the result. That kind of verisimilitude extends to the entire production, with a transporting set design by Rob Dutiel, depicting in detail Rothko's Bowery neighborhood atelier.

Schoolhouse Producing Director Bram Lewis notes that "John Logan represents the zenith of contemporary writers of stage and film."


I couldn't agree more with Bram's assessment, and not only because Logan won the 2010 Best Play Tony Award for Red (one of its six Tonys) and has been nominated three times for a Best Screenplay Oscar (including Gladiator).

Logan delivers an extraordinary amount of information, and yet manages to make it not only palatable but lucid, engrossing, inherently dramatic. It's not about the mechanics of his dialogue, but about the depths of his curiosity and fertility of his imagination, leavened by a golden ear for crackling exchanges.


Logan takes us on a rollercoaster ride with Rothko and Ken, whose fraught relationship is beautifully rendered by actors Lawlor and Beck. Freighted with the heavy load of Rothko's blowtorch of a psyche, which melts those in his purview whom he deems unworthy, Lawlor's energy never flags, with the artist's constant search for life's meaning imprinted in chiaroscuro on his expressive, pained face.


Beck is a revelation (and a delight) in the nimble navigation of his character's far-reaching arc, which courses from him wincing, whenever Rothko bellows with bloviating bravado, to Ken eventually growing a pair by unabashedly challenging the bullying mentor whose personal interest in Ken is zero. To Rothko, the young man might as well be a can of paint.

Rothko is too preoccupied worrying about "the black swallowing the red" (that is, desperation overwhelming aspiration) to concern himself with anybody's life but his own.

If you're looking for terrific, affordable theater, you'll want to drink in this delicious Red.

Production Stage Manager is Jeff Meyers. Lighting by Dennis Parichy. Costumes and Props by Alison Hublard Hershman. Sound by Owen Thompson. Scenic Painting by Isabelle Favette. Sound Engineer, Jessica Klee.

Photos by Doug Abdelnour

The 'Venerable' * Schoolhouse Theater is the Oldest Professional Theater in Westchester County

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