What a fabulous idea! The Westport Country Playhouse opened its 86th season with two plays in repertory about art. Controversial art, at that, as created by one real artist (Mark Rothko) in John Logan's play Red) and one fictitious artist ("Antrios," based on Robert Ryman) in Yasmina Reza's play Art. Both plays ask, "What do you see when you look at art?"

Rothko (played by Stephen Rowe) was well-established as an abstract expressionist at the time the play take place. He hires Ken (Patrick Andrews) as an assistant, gofer and sounding board (as long as Ken agrees with the egomaniacal painter). During the play, Rothko teaches Ken how to look at art, to see beyond the obvious, to see the movement in the painting, and to draw out the colors, the space and the passion that the artist intended. He encouraged him to read classics and to embrace all the arts to make him a better artist. He tells him, "Most of painting is thinking... Ten percent is putting paint onto the canvas. The rest is waiting." And "A picture lives by companionship. It dies by the same token. It's a risky act to send it out into the world." And ""These pictures deserve compassion and they live or die in the eye of the sensitive viewer."

Rothko was just paid the highest amount for commissioned paintings to hang at The Four Seasons restaurant. It wasn't just the money that was astounding, but the idea of complementing some of the giants in design (Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson) who were involved in the creation of the Seagrams building, the restaurant's location. Yet, when he went to the restaurant, he was disgusted with the pretentious atmosphere of the building and its equally ostentatious patrons. He ended up returning the commission and keeping the paintings and declared "Anybody who will eat that kind of food for those kind of prices will never look at a painting of mine." There are no stage hands in Red and the two actors mix paint, move all the large canvases by hand and on pulleys, and work together to prime one of them.

In Art, dermatologist Serge (John Skelley) proudly shows his friends, Marc (Benton Greene) and Yvan (Sean Dugan), his new painting that is a canvas about five feet by four feet and seemingly painted all in white. "If you screw up your eyes, you make out some fine white diagonal lines," Marc explains in the opening monologue before telling Serge with brutally honesty that "It's a piece of shit." He adds insult to injury by telling him he's crazy for having spent two hundred thousand euros on it. Needless to say, Serge is hurt and baffled by his friend's reaction. He insists that the picture is not totally white but has other colors in it, including red. Bursting in shortly after is Yvan, a neurotic people-pleaser who is about to have a nervous breakdown over plans for his upcoming wedding. Yvan, of course, tries to be gentle, but even he ends up agreeing that it's ridiculous. Art explores not just how people think about art, but the test of friendship over personal taste. There is also the idea of an object's worth, something that has raised discussions since before the play's premiere some 20 years ago and will probably continue forever. It's more significant today because of the growing inequality of wealth.

These productions of Art and Red are, well, masterpieces. Artistic Director Mark Lamos made a brilliant choice by producing them together in rep, with Red being shown on odd numbered days and Art on even numbered days. As the director of the plays, Lamos gets every nuance in the books and the characters and great performances from both casts. Every cast member is perfect. Benton Greene is a delight as Marc in Art. Greene shines as the wisecracking aeronautical engineer on whom the tables were turned as Serge unexpectedly criticized his wife. John Skelley, who was recently seen as the young soldier in the Westport Country Playhouse's production of And a Nightingale Sang, is in fine form as a dermatologist who fancies himself an art connoisseur. But Sean Dugan steals the show as Yvan. Marc describes as an amoeba because he "has no spine and no brain," but he is naturally ingratiating without being sycophantic and he is really funny. Stephen Rowe is a totally convincing Rothko in Red - bombastic and self-assured, yet likeable and commanding respect. Patrick Andrews more than holds his own against the artistic giant as the audience sees his growing self-confidence. Kudos also to Allen Moyer for his plausible and flexible scenic design of Rothko's Bowery studio and Serge's Parisian apartment. Add to that Matthew Richards's wonderful lighting and David Budries' excellent sound.

The timing of Westport Country Playhouse's presentation of these two plays couldn't have been better. There are discussions in the play about the value of art (none touching the $100-300 million paid for paintings by de Kooning, Rothko, Van Gogh, Klimt, Renoir, and others. As of this writing, there was a story in The New York Times about Christie's spring season, which included the sale of "Him," a small sculpture of Hitler kneeling. That went for $17.2 million with fees. Both the subject and the price fetched for it are considered by most people to be obscene.®ion=inside-nyt-region&WT.nav=inside-nyt-region

See Red first because Rothko's instructions on how to look at art will prepare you to see the differences of opinions in Art. They are each excellent plays, but seen together, they will enhance your theatre experience and your knowledge of art. They run through May 29 at The Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. 203-227-4177. Visit

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From This Author Sherry Shameer Cohen