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Review: 'Red' rounds out Rothko's edges at Long Beach Performing Arts

September 04, 2013|By F. Kathleen Foley
  • Patrick Stafford, left, and Tony Abatemarco in "Red" at International City Theatre.
Patrick Stafford, left, and Tony Abatemarco in "Red" at International… (Suzanne Mapes )

Just what hasn't Tony Abatemarco done in his several decades as a performer? Certainly  he has established himself as a performer of the first rank over the years in an incredibly varied array of roles.

Now Abatemarco takes on the challenge of portraying Mark Rothko in “Red,” John Logan's Tony-winning two-person drama about that titanic, troubled artist in the late 1950s, in the years before his 1970 suicide.

The play is essentially a Socratic interchange between Rothko and his assistant, Ken (Patrick Stafford, in a sensitive, savvy turn), an aspiring artist who has been hired to aid Rothko in the mammoth task of assembling a series of 30 huge paintings for the newly constructed Seagram Building's Four Seasons Restaurant.

Initially cowed by his irascible master, Ken eventually challenges Rothko's choleric observations with some harsh home truths of his own, namely that Rothko's outspoken contempt for artistic commercialism rings false, especially in light of his lucrative current commission. Of course, Rothko famously reneged on the Four Seasons deal, returning the cash and farming out his “Seagram Murals” to other, more established institutions.

Tony Award aside, Logan's segue into trumped-up tragedy -- Ken's monologue about a bloody childhood trauma -- seems misplaced in this context. Mostly, and most fortunately, the play is a dazzling examination of artistic obsession -- a fast-paced verbal duel beautifully orchestrated in caryn desai's subtly escalating staging.

The role of Rothko was famously created by Alfred Molina, first in London and later on Broadway and last year at the Mark Taper Forum. Comparisons may be odious, but they are inevitable, and Abatemarco's declamatory theatricality contrasts poorly with Molina's more organically muted portrayal, at least initially. While Molina was almost wholly rancorous and narcissistic, Abatemarco is more avuncular and accessible. It's certainly a bold approach, with a soupçon of sentimentality that rounds out Rothko's rough edges, yet at some detriment to his doomed character's lacerating prickliness.

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"Red," International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 15. $38-$45. (562) 436-4610. www.internationalcitytheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

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