Our store of famous, mid-century eccentrics has proven a real goldmine for screenwriters lately. Over the past year alone, people have flocked to films about Allen Ginsberg, J. Edgar Hoover and Marilyn Monroe, perhaps in hopes of getting some insight beyond the prevailing cultural myths, perhaps just to see the myths retold with Hollywood flare.

Because the critics will generally burn you for doing merely the latter, these films have come at a “see the real so-and-so” angle. Piecemeal, they satisfy a prevailing desire to “see the real 1950s” – a period with which we have evidently still not come to terms (Mad Men threatens to keep running until we do).

However, Ginsberg, Hoover and Monroe all failed to be interesting from this angle. That’s saying a lot.

With Red, playwright John Logan approaches abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko with a different way of thinking: write a character so sharply that it is able to intrigue independently of its real-life counterpart. Red‘s Rothko may be perfectly veridical; he may be a totally fabricated composite. It quickly becomes beside the point.

Logan, who has written outstanding films like “Gladiator,” “Hugo” and “The Aviator” (lo – the famous, mid-century eccentric par excellence!), assembles this artist, living in Jackson Pollock’s shadow, from an array of wonderfully clichéd character tropes: the self-obsessed curmudgeon, the paranoid control freak, the tormented genius, the functional drunk. Under the direction of Les Waters, David Chandler becomes the character entirely.

Subject to Rothko’s persistent flow of vitriol and pride is fresh-faced studio assistant Ken (John Brummer). The two strike immediate chemistry on stage, gliding about the paint-splattered set to whatever classical record Rothko has queued and butting heads on topics ranging from the nature of life and death, to whether Rothko’s multi-million dollar commission to decorate a swanky Manhattan restaurant constitutes selling out.

In a common but compelling narrative arch, the teacher eventually becomes the student. Rothko schools Ken in a version of art history that culminates squarely with himself, whereupon Ken forces the master to accept that abstract expressionism’s time has come and gone. Just as Rothko and Pollock crushed the cubists, so Warhol and Lichtenstein will crush their forbears. The son has to eventually kill the father.

At full intellectual throttle, Red revisits this pivotal point in art history through a two-hand tête-à-tête that could hardly be improved upon. In doing so, the play bests its Hollywood counterparts, and stands out as the sharpest production of the season so far for Berkeley Rep, by a wide margin.

Red runs through April 29, 2012, at the Berkeley Repertory Theater. Buy tickets here.

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