Seattle Repertory Theatre's production of the award-winning Broadway play stars two local actors with impressive résumés: Denis Arndt, as Mark Rothko, and Connor Toms, as Rothko's assistant, Ken.
Over breakfast at a Queen Anne cafe, veteran stage and film performer Denis Arndt is chatting amiably about some shows he’s done over the years in Seattle.
Fellow actor Connor Toms breaks in. “We’re here for two minutes, and you’re already talking about the good old days!” cracks Toms, with a mock groan.
Such sparring between the two seems apropos for “Red,” a hit Broadway play by John Logan (also the screenplay author of the film “Hugo”), having its Northwest debut at Seattle Repertory Theatre this week.
Logan’s two-handed drama focuses on the generation gap and charged personal dynamic between the renowned abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko (shown at the height of his fame in the late 1950s, and played here by Arndt) and his (fictional) studio assistant, Ken (played by Toms).
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A Tony Award winner and a regional favorite that’s being produced in more than a dozen U.S. cities this season, “Red” won rave notices on Broadway — and a more measured response in its London premiere.
It relies a good deal on the rapport of a well-synchronized acting duo, as the tumultuous Rothko holds forth on the philosophy, challenges and compromises of making art, and with his new helper prepares a canvas for one of his famed “red series” paintings.
Like Rothko, the Oregon-based Arndt is the sage, older (nearly 74), more-established practitioner in the room, with plenty of stories to tell and wisdom to share. His four-decade career spans long stints in Shakespeare plays in Ashland, Ore., performing in Portland and Seattle theaters and taking memorable turns in TV series from “Columbo” to “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Toms, 32, is the upstart, a versatile, quick-witted and boyish-looking leading man. He’s just entered his prime with stellar recent performances in Book-It Repertory Theatre’s “The Cider House Rules, Parts One and Two” and Seattle Shakespeare Company’s “Cymbeline,” among other local gigs.
The offstage dynamic between the two actors seems far more jocular and mutually respectful than their onstage rapport. Rothko, sketched by Logan (often in the real Rothko’s words) as a brilliant but arrogant, tormented painter, lords it over the quiet but increasingly resentful Ken — an aspiring artist who eventually gets his say, too.
“Rothko tells Ken he’s not his rabbi, shrink, friend, father and … of course he turns out to be all those things,” points out Toms. “Basically, Rothko thinks he knows everything — and Ken thinks he’s a bag of wind.”
“It’s about that transition from modern art to pop art,” offers Arndt. “Rothko represents the passing of one art form, and the young man represents the coming one. It’s a rite of passage.”
Arndt isn’t so much passing the torch to Toms as he is building a fire with him.
Day one of “Red” rehearsals with director Richard E.T. White was “the first time we met,” Toms notes. “It was a blind date … (Now) it’s like I’m in an acting master class.”
For his part, Arndt (Denny to his friends) sees in Toms a fellow theatrical explorer.
“It’s a constant sense of being equally focused, knowing the text, and challenging each other at every turn,” Arndt states emphatically. “There’s really no ego involved in it, no ‘who’s right’ or ‘who’s wrong.’ It’s really about the text, and collaborating on the piece.”
A dedicated, still vigorous practitioner of his craft (with a touch of the chronic ambivalence about the profession that afflicts many of the best), Arndt came to acting relatively late.
First the Spokane native had a long hitch in the service as a combat helicopter pilot. “I loved the military — the costumes were great and all the props worked,” he jokes.
When he left the military, he turned to theater. Arndt’s on-the-job training included a “wonderful” 15-year stint at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and cofounding Seattle’s Intiman Theatre with Margaret Booker and others.
As a freelance thespian, he’s commuted from Ashland (where he and his wife raised three kids, and still reside) to Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle. And he’s lodged scrupulous, commanding performances here in recent years, as a die-hard Marxist academic in Tom Stoppard’s “Rock’n Roll” and a disillusioned sleuth in Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” — both at ACT.
Toms, like Arndt and director White, hails from Spokane.
“I wanted to be a baseball player as a kid, but then I found girls,” the exuberant actor reports, “and girls were more interested in me on a stage, than on the pitcher’s mound.”
He counts frequent family trips to Ashland to watch Shakespeare and a Cornish College of the Arts acting degree as factors in his burgeoning stage career. And recently he married fellow actor Hana Lass.
The onstage and offstage connection between Toms and Arndt will likely shift and enlarge through the Seattle Rep run of “Red,” and in runs at the coproducing Arizona Theatre Company.
In fact, they’ll be working together well into May. So what’s the key to working in tandem for months, on different stages? “It’s like being a skater,” Arndt reflects. “It’s different every night — sometimes the ice is very thin, sometimes it’s smooth, other times it’s rough.”
Any advice to his younger colleague? “Just, bring your skates!”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org