At the end of the road there ain’t nothing but fear
Just a big old room with a big old mirror
And the man in the mirror, his hair’s turning grey
And his hands begin to shake in a funny kind of way
He knows everything you bring forth will save your soul
Everything denied will condemn you to the hole
With his hand on his heart, he picks up his pen
And goes searching for the place where the dream begins
-Tom Russell, “Where the Dream Begins”
I not only saw Red on Broadway, it made my top 10 theater productions list that year. It overcame some surface problems to end up squarely hitting as one of the most invigorating, moving productions I saw in 2010 – an amazing year that also included the first plays I saw by Annie Baker and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, and revivals of Ishmael Houston-Jones’ Them and August Wilson’s Fences. So there was a little trepidation at seeing CATCO’s performance of it; would I already be irrevocably tainted by the earlier exposure? Ultimately, I thought to not see this in my home town, both to whet my appetite for the Decisive Decade Rothko retrospective at CMA (an institution which has done more for rekindling my interest in the last three years than the previous 15) and to get a charge and see if the text still holds, would be kind of insulting to me and to a company bringing in something I praised to the skies.
Beyond that, this play is very much in CATCO’s wheelhouse – a two-hander with one set, very naturalistic, very literal. And in a lot of ways, they rise to the expectations. The set design by Michael Brewer’s marvelous, Jarod Wilson’s lighting and Ruth Boyd’s costumes are perfect but not distracting, you never feel like the late ‘50s is underlined but it still grounds you in the time.
Jimmy Bohr’s very kinetic direction seems to take its guidance from the lines in the script about colors pulsing and being held in check. I feel like part of the reason the lines about the forms in the paintings “pulsing” seems highlighted here is because nothing ever seems static in the production. More often than not, this works. Sometimes, it works magnificently – as in the moment where the two characters team up to prime a canvas; the scene where Rothko returns from seeing a pop art presentation and he’s vibrating with rage, circling for a fight; the finale which moves as fast as life, the life-changing sentence getting delivered as though from a moving train. Sometimes it works less well, there are beats that might hit harder if the audience had a few more seconds to meditate on them.
But this kind of play – a little overwritten, a touch obvious, but with a love for its source material and a connection to its emotional heart that overcomes the flaws – lives and dies with its two actors. Tim Simeone, as the fictional assistant, found his rhythm and soared. His character had this wide-eyed sense of wonder, in awe of the boss while trying not to see him as a surrogate father or a teacher. Everything about him is on the surface, an exposed wound playing at being a cynic, and it’s marvelous to watch. Kevin McClatchy was more of a mixed bag. He obviously brought a lot of thought and intensity to the role but ultimately it felt like he was rushing through the lines, he was hammering home the punch lines until it felt flattened. It kind of worked for 1959 – it’s a performance very much in the style of Sid Caesar or Carl Reiner – but that approach frequently became static and left the darker moments, “When I kill myself…” flatter than I felt they needed to be.
So it’s a solid performance well produced by CATCO, but it stays on base; never quite the home run you know is inside of it.