Mark Rothko almost bleeds out onto the canvas in "Red."
The master of abstract expressionism doesn't just paint in John Logan's Tony-winning drama. He brushes the canvas so gently and with such delicacy, it's almost a caress, an embrace. The pleasures and epiphanies of that artistic process are beautifully captured in Kenneth Kelleher's understated production, which runs through March 3 at San Jose Stage.
While this 90-minute portrait of the painter has a tendency to indulge in the cliche of the tormented artist, "Red" still vividly evokes the relationship between an artist and his work. For the stormy Rothko (Randall King), it was a love affair with light and color that was more intimate than any bond he ever had with a human being -- certainly not his young assistant Ken (Aaron Wilton), whom he treats with a toxic blend of condescension and disdain.
For the 20th century art icon, people were just blurs in the background to the central preoccupation of capturing existence on the canvas. He doesn't waste time on civility or conversation, and he can't abide by art as entertainment. For him, art is deadly serious. Art is his attempt to continue a philosophical discourse with great minds from Nietzsche to Socrates. That's the tenor of existential motifs he is trying to embody in his glowing rectangles, his layered blocks of black and maroon. If you aren't willing to live and die for art, he has little use for you.
For the record, humility is not his strong suit. He considers himself a genius who deserves his place in the pantheon alongside Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse and thinks someone as lowly as Ken should be grateful to be allowed to breathe the same air. Their conversations quickly turn to confrontations amid the claustrophobic splatter and clutter of the dimly lit studio (brooding set by Richard C. Ortenblad).
King misses some of Rothko's inner pain, the tragedy that doomed this Russian immigrant to feel hopeless even at his height, but he does an admirable job nailing the intensity of the artist's stare. He doesn't look at things so much as burn a hole through them with his eyes. King also captures the artist's ego, his need for constant self-examination.
Long before the show starts, King's Rothko sits on the darkened stage, his back to the audience, peering into his elegance and gloom of his paintings as if nothing else in the world existed. He is under the spell of his own art.
That solipsism leads him to take the world's splashiest commission since the Sistine Chapel. In 1958, he agrees to paint a series of murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan, and it takes Ken to point out the irony.
Rothko loathes the commercial. He despises the zeitgeist. He abhors the rise of the pop artists with their glib championship of merchandising. He fancies himself a high priest of art, so how can his paintings adorn the walls of this temple of consumption without selling his soul?
Wilton struggles with some of the play's more didactic patches, but he ignites in Ken's arias of discontent, when the student rises up to dethrone his teacher.
Kelleher has a light touch when framing this battle of wills, but the tug of war between master and servant needs more tension to flesh out Logan's debates about art, history and philosophy. And the climactic priming of a canvas lacks passion, although the re-creations of Rothko's murals themselves are eye-catching.
But there's no denying the richness and romance of the play's themes. "Red" is a snapshot of the darkness within the creative impulse. It's a chance to dive into the fury of the artist's gaze and wonder at the flame.
By John Logan
Through: March 3
Where: San Jose Stage,
490 S. First St., San Jose
Running time: 1 hour,
30 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $14-$45, 408-283-7142, www.thestage.org