Perhaps you've seen a Mark Rothko painting, a blocky swathe of colours that look like vague rectangles from a distance. But go closer, and the canvas begins to shift, almost imperceptibly, with a dazzling richness and depth.
It is 1958, and the abstract expressionist painter has just agreed to a commission to fill a swanky Manhattan restaurant, The Four Seasons, with over 40 paintings (eventually known as the Seagram Murals). History tells us that he visited the restaurant, was horrified at its pretentiousness, and eventually reneged on the deal despite a fat paycheck.
Red brings us back to the spring of 1958, imagining what might have happened if Rothko (Daniel Jenkins) had hired a new assistant (Gavin Yap). As Rothko dispenses what he believes to be golden artistic wisdom, Ken eventually reveals thought-provoking theories of his own.
Red is an art lecture disguised as a biopic - even as it attempts to be a biopic disguised as an art lecture. Playwright John Logan (whose screenwriting credits include Gladiator and The Aviator) has so many ideas about art he wants to cram into his script that they leak out of every frame: whether it is a meditation on the ageing artist, the emotional devastation of colour, the eternal struggle between emotion and intellect, or the contradiction of being an artist who must go commercial against his will.
The ideas at play are deeply worthy of discussion, but they never quite gain new life in dramatisation, and instead make the on-stage Rothko feel like less of a person and more of a name-dropping collection of ideas.
Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall has demonstrated a recent fascination with these historical two-handers. Her first outing at the Esplanade's Studios season was a similarly talky Freud's Last Session (2012). But there, seasoned actors Daniel York (as C.S. Lewis) and Matt Grey (Sigmund Freud) played off each other marvellously, never chewing up too much of the scenery, in a well-paced push and pull that allowed both to shine. They also had the benefit of a substantially less whiny script by Mark St. Germain.
In Red, Scott-Blackhall sets her actors up for a sparring match: watch them circle the canvas, and the way they occupy various positions in the room as though it were a chess board. But the tussle never quite takes off. This is partly because Logan is so careful (or perhaps clever) to play to both sides of the artistic argument that he ends up safely ensuring that he will always be on the right team, thereby dodging the difficulty of having to actually pick a side. Rothko's foil, Ken, is also largely a sounding board for his rants.
The production is an aesthetically gorgeous one, but there comes a tipping point from slathering such a thick veneer of authenticity onto a work - the drive to be absolutely accurate starts to feel oppressive. Every movement and every brush, cup, pail and ink smudge feels premeditated. Instead of a respectful attention to detail, the work teeters on the brink of becoming an overdone, if conscientious, copy of real life - because it reveals an extreme precision that reality itself lacks. Something hyper-real ends up becoming entirely unreal.
And when a show has this much faithfulness to its era and characters, one demands the same level of rigour from its actors, and Gavin Yap (as Ken) falters when it comes to holding up his end of the boxing match - not helped by the fact that Logan has spent most of his best lines on Rothko. Yap delivers his lines competently, but is simply swallowed by Daniel Jenkins' giant presence on stage.
Jenkins is the undisputed star here, and he practically gleams as the blustery, self-righteous Rothko, despite some frankly unnecessary prosthetics that, unfortunately, made him look like he was wearing Groucho Marx glasses and a Sesame Street wig. But he never stoops to caricature; he transcends these trappings and gamely embraces the passion of Rothko, monomania and all, in a pulse-quickening performance.
They are carried by a superb design team, and James Tan's dynamic lighting can soften and harden this painstaking rendition of Rothko's New York City loft (by set designer Wong Chee Wai) in an instant, whether through the sear of fluorescent whiteness or the gentle incandescence of springtime.
For all its meandering parries and thrusts, this take on Red gets one important thing right - it makes Rothko's work come alive. The layered brushstrokes in the replicas of the Seagram Murals shimmer and leap in the light.
And Rothko's words also shine when they focus on his paintings, which he likens to his children. The play immediately becomes personal and intimate, instead of an over-choreographed art debate. These words beg us to take a deeper look, to take a step forward (or perhaps a step back) and soak up these pulsating hues of reds, browns, maroons and blacks.
"What do you see?" may be Rothko's first words, but it is only when he stops asking and allows us to look that we can truly gain new insight.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan
Where: Esplanade Theatre Studio
When: July 11 at 8pm and 10.30pm; July 12 at 3pm, 7.30pm and 10pm; July 13 at 3pm and 7.30pm
Admission: $28 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
Advisory: Strong language used