Theater biographies of artists tend to be pseudo-serious art-appreciation melodramas meant to make audiences feel smart without tiring them out.
With the major exception of "Sunday in the Park With George," most portraits of artists as young men/old men/fragile men/cranky men (and even a few women) say less about process than about personality, spiced up with struggles against the crass marketplace and romantic gobbledygook about visits from the mystical artistic muse.
For a while into "Red," the 90-minute London import about Mark Rothko (the marvelous Alfred Molina) and a young apprentice (Eddie Redmayne), it seems playwright John Logan is careening into the gossip-and-grandiosity rut of art-bio presumption.
But suddenly, as the men prime an enormous canvas and themselves in a frenzied bacchanalia of red paint, the grips of Rothko's art and Michael Grandage's visceral production close in and refuse to let go. By the time Rothko, the brainy and difficult American abstract expressionist, declares his massive "pulsing" color-field work is "here to stop your heart," the paintings throb at us as if they actually might.
In 1958, Rothko received a huge $35,000 commission to create murals for The Four Seasons Restaurant in the new Seagram Building. Flattered by the association with architects Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he convinced himself that his monumentally serious abstractions would create a sanctuary amid the fancy diners. After years of work, he pulled out of the commission and returned the money. Logan (who wrote the screenplays for "Sweeney Todd" and "Gladiator") imagines how the decision was made.
Molina imbues Rothko with a blowhard majesty, an almost childish self-involvement that is cruel, painful and not too lovable. With an expert American accent and beady eyes behind Rothko's glasses, the chameleonic English actor turns an ungainly mountain of contradictions into a dark coherence.
Redmayne struggles more with the accent, but not with the intense evolution of the apprentice who arrives at Rothko's dimly lit New York studio (designed by Christopher Oram) with its looming canvasses of reds and blacks. The relationship goes through a familiar trajectory, from master-student slave to a grudging respect, but transcends pat expectations. So does this compelling play.
WHERE Golden Theater, 252 W. 45th St.
INFO $25-$116.50; 212-239-6200; redonbroadway.com
BOTTOM LINE Gripping portrait of the artist as a cranky tragedy