For the first hour of Red, now playing at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, artist Mark Rothko blusters and rants around his studio. If this is thinking out loud, then Rothko had one stormy cerebellum. He hurls paint, he grumbles about fellow abstract painter Jackson Pollock and he throws drunken hissy fits, all in front of his wide-eyed assistant, Ken.
As imagined by playwright John Logan, Rothko was a name-dropper of the highest caliber. He was also a snob, a shut-in, a coward and a delusional pedant. There's not much worse than an affected perfectionist, and anyone who describes his peers as "my contemporaries" is doomed to be friendless. But that's how Red plays out, for minute after pretentious minute, in Rothko's giant New York atelier, circa 1959.
But there's a twist. Rothko is a speeding train, and boyish Ken is a pile of TNT laid over the tracks. When the collision occurs, this two-man show fiercely explodes. In a shocking reversal, all Rothko's drivel comes back to haunt him. He sabotages himself by talking too much and painting too little. There's a reason this play has no intermission, and you will be grateful to have suffered through the first half.
As Rothko, Jeff Still rattles off his lines with élan and occasional humor, and his tirades seem both volcanic and harmless. After all, Rothko only exists in his studio, a converted basketball court, a voluminous space that is also pathetic. When he hits the street, Rothko is only Marcus Rothkowitz, a pudgy, awkward, unemployable drunk.
Meanwhile, Ken plays rhetorical dodgeball until the penultimate scene, when he finally fights back. As Ken, Jack Cutmore-Scott is a natural actor, especially during his longer monologues, and he seems to really believe what he's saying. According to the program notes, Cutmore-Scott graduated from Harvard with a bachelor of arts degree in English literature. His illumination shows.
Directed by Pamela Berlin, the production's only weakness is the O'Reilly Theater itself, whose grand interior dilutes an intimate show. As ever, the actors lose subtlety in pursuit of projection. Small loss. The Public is the first Pittsburgh stage to snatch this Broadway gem. You may wonder, in the beginning, why Red won a Tony for best play. Wait for it.
RED continues through Dec. 11. Pittsburgh Public Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-316-1600 or ppt.org.