Philadelphia Theatre Company opened its 2011-12 season with the local premiere of John Logan’s Tony Award-winning drama “Red,” which runs through Nov. 13 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St.
Set in the late 1950s, “Red” follows master abstract expressionist Mark Rothko (played by Broadway veteran Stephen Rowe) just after he lands the biggest commission in the history of modern art — a series of murals for New York City’s famed Four Seasons restaurant. Over the course of two years, Rothko works with his young assistant, Ken (played by Haley Joel Osment), as he tries to create a definitive work of art.
Out Swedish-born director, Anders Cato, described Rothko as “an iconic conflicted American giant” of his time.
“I think that his life makes interesting theater,” Cato said. “It’s a time period and a painter that we want to take a look at. [Openly gay playwright] John Logan has made this intense little play, an hour and a half for only two characters, but it’s a play that moves very far into the worlds of these people. It doesn’t just center around the painter but around this assistant, who is an invented character. It about his coming of age and moving from being a young man to adulthood.”
“Red” debuted in London before moving on to Broadway, where it won a number of accolades, which is why Cato believed it had British origins when he first saw it.
“It seemed in some ways to be a British play,” he said. “But when you look closer at it, it isn’t at all. It’s about an American painter and it’s about an important time period in American art history, when New York suddenly becomes the center for the art world with abstract expressionism becoming the focus of the art world. It’s a very exciting time in American art.
“In the beginning of the play we experience Rothko through Ken, but then there are times where we move over and relate to the issues of the play through Rothko. [But] the play isn’t just about the relationship. It’s also about painting and understanding Rothko’s world and the concrete act of what it’s like to pass on this heritage of being a painter.”
The casting of Osment, famous for his acting in movies “The Sixth Sense” and “Pay It Forward,” brings another level of anticipation to the Philadelphia performances of “Red.” Cato said there is a parallel between the journey of Ken and the professional journey of Osment.
“People sort of know so well who he is from the movies. But why this becomes so interesting is here he gets to take that step. Now he’s a 23-year-old young man and, in the play, he gets to take that step from youth to adulthood. That public knowledge puts a focus, in an interesting way, on the action of the play.”
Add that to the fact that only two characters drive the story and you have an intense production, Cato noted.
“There’s a closeness and intimacy when you work with two people,” he said. “It becomes a lot about not just understanding the material but going to places that are personal and deep inside of the actors. You cannot do this kind of material without really finding out something and taking some personal risks with it.”
Philadelphia Theatre Company presents “Red” through Nov. 6 at Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, call 215-985-0420.