The only thing hotter than this summer heat wave was the opening of Red at the Taper, written by John Logan and directed by Michael Grandage””both of whom received 2010 Tony awards.Â Red is rich with ideas and rife with the raging passion of Alfred Molina, who reprises his Tony-nominated role as artist Mark Rothko, joined in this production by Jonathan Groff in the role of his mentee, Ken.
The evening temperature went up a few more notches with the arrival of the always gracious and hottest woman on television, Betty White. On the arm of her friend, actress Millicent Martin, she paused a moment to say why she was here tonight. “One word. Fred.” White beamed that megawatt smile and added, “Alfred Molina. He’s a great, dear friend and we’re coming to see his performance.”
Actor Zachary Quinto, who was magnificently frightening in his series regular role on NBC’s Heroes, was spotted having dinner at the outdoor bar and restaurant just below the Taper courtyard. He then joined friends outside the theater. “I’m thrilled to be here. I saw it in New York. I love this play, so I’m happy to see it again and support great theater in Los Angeles.” Favorite artists? “I really like Jasper Johns and Lichtenstein. I like contemporary art for sure. I like the time in which it was created and the movement out of which it came. This play deals with the movement just before that — the cusp of that movement. I like the history of it.”Â Quinto returns for Season 2 on the FX series American Horror Story along with Jessica Lange, whom I recognized behind large sunglasses as she declined to speak and rushed into the theater.
I knew about the talents of young screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk and Big Love) but not about his charm and charisma. Also, the man knows how to dress — he was wearing a smashing dark jacket with gray piping, matching gray tie and patent leather sneakers. I told Black he looked fantastic and asked what brought him here tonight. He smiled delightfully. “Well, John [Logan] invited me. I’ve gotten to know him over the past few weeks. I’ve been a huge fan and went up to him at a UCLA event where he was being honored [in fact, Black too was being honored]. We’ve since become friends. Actually I’m signing on to teach a grad screenwriting class there on “˜the true story’. Isn’t that strange? I don’t even have a master’s degree. I don’t know how I’m going to be teaching people.” The modesty of this Academy Award-winning screenwriter was sincere and refreshing. “I’m excited to see the play tonight,” Black added. “I think it’s fantastic that they got this wonderful cast to do it here.”
Rothko is quoted in his biography as saying, “I became a painter because I wanted to raise painting to the level of poignancy of music and poetry.” Does art have that same effect on Black? “Some art, yes,” he replied. “There are times when I’ve had an incredible emotional reaction just walking into a room with a piece of art in it.” He recalled visiting museums in the DC area, where his mother moved after he grew up in Texas and California. “Every week during the summer I would visit various museums. Besides the Smithsonian they have so many galleries. There is the Corcoran, that beautiful big round building where the collection is always changing with exhibits of new artists of today. I was spoiled with so much to see.
“When it’s clear to me that what the artist wanted to do was convey emotion — sometimes it happens in scale, color or even texture coming off the canvas — if the artist is doing his job by communicating that emotion right through the canvas hanging on the wall, I have an emotional reaction. It has happened many, many times. That’s why I like to go to a museum absolutely alone because then I’m experiencing my feeling, my relationship with the piece. I don’t know if it’s what the artist intended but it doesn’t matter.” He pauses and then adds, “It’s hard to beat music for me, but occasionally it happens with a painting.”
If Black’s UCLA students are wondering how they can learn from a man “without a master’s,” they might want to query him on two recent projects we talked about. “I wrote the screenplay for The Barefoot Bandit that Robert Zemeckis is directing. It’s about Colton Harris-Moore, the kid who is stealing airplanes and invading the FBI; and Under The Banner of Heaven based on the Jon Krakauer book for Ron Howard. We just wrapped that up.”Â I tell him he’s amazing and adorable. Black grins shyly, “Oh shush”¦” Please, oh please don’t change.
Alan Mandell, last seen at the Taper in Waiting For Godot, stopped to say, “I’m here because I saw it in New York and I worked with Fred in The Cherry Orchard. He’s terrific; you have to love that man. He is so generous and there to make sure everything works. It isn’t about him. It’s about the character he’s playing. It’s about the play and it’s about pleasing the audience. He has tremendous respect for his fellow actors.
“But, the other thing interesting to me is that Jonathan Groff is playing the assistant in this production. He’s such a wonderful young actor, and I have a feeling he will be even better. Not only that, but did you know he’s a terrific hoofer? He taps; he’s a marvelous tap dancer.”
Mandell responds to my question about Rothko’s comparison of art to music and poetry. “It is absolutely as poignant. Yesterday I went to Wrightwood to visit the studio of an artist named John Frame; he does figures. His last show was at the Huntington and I saw the most extraordinary work. It’s art, it’s poetry and it’s a perfect example in answer to your question. Can art be raised to that level? Is it part of poetry and great literature? Absolutely.”
David Mamet’s play November is the next production at the Taper, and one of its stars, Ed Begley, Jr., arrived with beautiful actress Rachelle Carson, his wife. The always affable Begley said, “I’m a big fan of Fred Molina and of this playwright who I just met. Michael Ritchie thinks the world of the play. It won the Tony and I haven’t seen it, so I’m looking forward to this. I have many friends who are artists. Ed Ruscha is a dear friend of mine; also the wonderful sculptor Robert Graham, who is no longer with us.” Given the socio-economic and political problems facing the world and the country, why is art so important? “I’m a collector of art. I love art. Absent the life we have in art with plays and paintings and music, life becomes just survival. But, art enriches us in so many ways. It makes us really enjoy and appreciate our time here. And art often teaches us many wonderful lessons about our lives. It does so many things and I’m looking forward to seeing what it does tonight.”
What it did was send the audience to its feet in a long and spontaneous standing ovation. After the show, invited guests strolled down Grand Avenue to MOCA, the Museum of Contemporary Art, for a cast party scrumptiously catered by Lemonade in the outdoor courtyard. An indoor gallery exhibited eight of Rothko’s paintings. It was interesting to view them after having watched Molina’s portrayal of the artist’s life and creative process.
Celebrating celebrities included Jesse Tyler Ferguson (recently starred in The Producers at the Hollywood Bowl) who chatted with Begley and actress Lily Rabe (daughter of playwright David Rabe and the late Jill Clayburgh).Â Black joined director Michael Mann and his wife Susan at an indoor cocktail table. We spoke again briefly and Black said, “I was emotionally moved by the production.” Jessica Lange attended but when asked to chat briefly about the wonderful play, she sweetly smiled “no”.Â Molina arrived later and was immediately surrounded by well-wishers including his co-star, Groff.
John Logan beamed as we found a quiet corner. “I really love this production of my play.” Does it differ from the one in New York? “Absolutely it does. It’s a 50% new cast, and when Michael Grandage (director) and I started working on it with Jonathan Groff and Fred Molina it became its own animal. It had to, because half the cast was new and I used this opportunity at the Taper production to work again on the script. There were things I was never satisfied with; things I thought never worked.Â So selfishly, cannibalistically, I used the great talents at the Taper to allow me to work on the script.”
Asked to describe the changes, Logan responded, “I really can’t talk about that because I still have to finalize the”¦.(he trails off)”¦but, you know there were some scenes I didn’t think really worked. Some things went on too long and some jokes didn’t land. So working with the actors and Michael, I was able to make refinements.” Tonight’s proudest achievement? “I think finding the perfect balance of strength and sensitivity between the two characters. The play is a binary act and in order to see those people perfectly balanced, the play had to be adjusted and nuanced. When I watched it tonight, I thought, it’s just a superbly balanced evening.”
Can you explain the use of the second character? “Although he’s not a real person, Rothko had assistants throughout his career. But, the idea of a two-handed play came from the paintings themselves: light/dark, red/black. I thought a two-hander seemed right because the issues I was interested in scoring were about fathers and sons, students and teachers, mentors and protégés. So a young man and an old man grappling with life together seemed very exciting. The character of Ken is the counterpoint to Rothko.”
In the play Rothko frees Ken to leave, rather than Ken deciding to leave on his own. Logan explains, “I can’t say specifically why, because the play is all one piece for me and that seemed emotionally and structurally the place for it to go. I didn’t know about Rothko before I decided to write this play. I went to the Tate Museum, walked into a room with 12 of the Seagram’s murals and that was it. I was so struck by the paintings; then I read the description on the gallery wall of why he painted them and what happened to him. I thought it was an amazing story.”
Asked about Rothko’s wish to equate art with music and poetry, Logan says, “I believe it does carry the same poignancy because to a sensitive viewer, to a sensitive audience member, a beautiful Keats poem, a magnificent Gershwin lyric or an incredible painting are all very emotional works. To me the key to art is emotion — an emotional connection with the audience. And, if you give yourself over to those works, you’ll be rewarded.”
Pick up your reward at the Taper as you participate in this very special evening through Sept. 9.
CHAT CITE: “A guilty conscience needs to confess. A work of art is a confession” Albert Camus
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***All photos by Ryan Miller/Capture ImagingPrint