Mark Rothko detested natural light. The painter kept the shades tightly drawn on his cavernous studio, where he controlled how light played off the layers of color on his canvases. Bright, stark light was a brutal intrusion.

Playwright John Logan's "Red," in its Minnesota premiere at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, reveals Rothko as god of his own universe -- jealous, self-absorbed, captive to his own creations. Fierce in manner, his fragility comes across in his desire to "protect" his art from the depredations of the outside world. He can trust few other humans to cradle his art with the love and affection he has.

Logan's Tony-winning play rests on the lumpy mensch inhabited by J.C. Cutler on the Park Square stage. Tough and blunt in his assessments, cocky and feisty in conversation, Cutler's Rothko is a man looking for a fight. He has found the perfect punching bag in Ken (Steven Lee Johnson), a young artist who has taken a job as Rothko's assistant. Ken takes the abuse, figuring it is the price of being this close to Rothko's timeless wisdom. Finally, the young man realizes Rothko is indeed only a man, a fellow artist with insecurities and flaws.

"Red," as directed by Richard Cook, nicely approximates a glimpse inside Rothko's creative cave -- a scenic masterpiece by Lance Brockman and Anne Henly. Mixing clutter with an odd sense of order and purpose, the big black room becomes a caldron as Cutler's Rothko expounds on tragedy, Dionysus, Apollo, Jackson Pollock and which hue of red is appropriate. Michael Kittel's lights pulse with color, themselves becoming another art element, and C. Andrew Mayer's sound design catches the classical music that inspired Rothko.

The hook in Logan's play involves Rothko's agreement to a 1958 commission for murals to hang in the Four Seasons restaurant. Ken stabs at the old man: Has he become a sellout, allowing his precious babies to become the most expensive wallpaper in Manhattan? The very thought is anathema to Rothko, yet how else to explain his taking this job?

There is so much to love about this play and this production. Cutler explodes with fury when Johnson's Ken breaks a moment of concentration with a suggestion that his canvas needs more "red." Ken gives back, later, savaging Rothko about his inability to accept the new wave of artists, just as Rothko's cohort had "stomped to death" Picasso and his school.

One of the most stirring moments comes as the two painters devour the work of priming a canvas, a kinetic dance that testifies wordlessly to the joy and exhilaration of creation.

As rich and powerful as this stuff is, director Cook might have pushed Cutler even deeper into Rothko's self-absorption -- that dark absence of light. Bellowing at Ken that the youngster "does not exist!" Rothko spends a curious amount of time playing to him with something approaching friendliness. Physical opportunities, too, are sometimes unobserved and Johnson's screed tends toward the monochromatic.

These accents, like the layers of color in Rothko's work, would deepen the texture. As it is, the work pulsates with its chosen rhythms, and Cutler's final image is one of the most powerful tableaux witnessed on any stage lately. Logan's play is so keen and perceptive, lean and well made. Not seeing it would be a mistake.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299