When standing before a Mark Rothko painting, you may find yourself absorbed in the expansive canvas; or, exasperated, you may mutter “a third-grader could have painted this.” This dichotomy only adds to the mystique of the artist and his work, which is the subject of John Logan’s Red, now at San Jose Stage, where the company’s artistic director, Randall King, plays the great abstract painter, a role filled by Alfred Molina in the play’s acclaimed West End and Broadway runs.

Here, the visage of Rothko, bald and slouching in his ill-fitting, paint-spattered clothes, is onstage before the show even starts. He gazes intently at his paintings; specifically, the Seagram Murals, the vivid set of pictures he designed for the Four Seasons Restaurant. You wonder what he’s thinking, what the great swaths of red and black mean to him. By the play’s end, you’ll be thinking about what they mean to you.

Red details Rothko’s relationship with fictional assistant Ken. This character, played by Aaron Wilton, serves as an audience surrogate and a foil for his employer, though he has a not-uninteresting backstory of his own. The pair’s interactions show Rothko as arrogant and capricious—and so angry that his serious approach is becoming anachronistic in the Pop Art era of comic books and Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. Through his bitterness, however, shines a touching parental concern for his paintings.

Ken has his own notions of what art should be and is surprisingly bold in standing up to the imposing Rothko. In the play’s version of events, it is Ken who elicits Rothko’s conflicted feelings about the Four Seasons project. The painter is torn between his stated goal, to “ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats in that room,” and the thought of his precious works hanging unappreciated in such a shallow, bourgeois setting.

More interesting than the spoken dialogue is the visual experience of the play, which brims with chaos and passion. Cigarette smoke swirls through the air and bits of noodle fly out of King’s mouth as he talks art through a meal of Chinese food. Most striking of all is the red, blood-like paint that is liberally strewn about, and the physical act of King and Wilton actually painting onstage creates a very visceral sense of the artist’s connection with his work on the canvas.

Wednesday-Thursday, 7:30pm, Friday-Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 2pm; through March 3; $20-$45
The Stage