nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 13, 2007
A twentysomething woman and a man in his mid-50s stand tensely around a littered conference room. It is late at the end of the workday. She is dressed in an appealing red dress, while he is a disheveled mess of cut-rate corporate wear. They are both clearly agitated. He keeps a healthy distance as they try to make small talk, prompting her to ask, "Are you allergic to me?" Soon, it becomes evident that they know each other, but how remains a mystery.
More strained conversation. Then, the man, Ray, begins to question whether it even is her or not. It seems they haven't seen each other in a long time, and he claims not to recognize her. To which the girl, Una, replies, "How many other 12-year-olds have you had sex with?"
And with that shocking disclosure, the audience is dropped head first into the claustrophobic world of Blackbird, the mesmerizing new drama by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Let me cut right to the chase and say that this is the most intense, spellbinding, and accomplished piece of theatre I have seen all season. Harrower's terse writing has plenty to do with that, but so does the work of his collaborators. Led by Joe Mantello's assured direction, and a pair of sensational performances by Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill, Blackbird unapologetically takes the audience down the dark, twisted road of what surprisingly turns out to be a love story. Forbidden and disturbing love, yes, but a love story nonetheless.
At first, though, there are stinging vilifications. Ray, who is totally on edge for much of their reunion, tries to gain the upper hand at one point by trenchantly asking, "Does anyone even care about you?" She retaliates with her parents' long-ago description of the pre-child abuse Ray: "Shy, a little dull, and a loner." It seems that Ray was a temporary guest in Una's house way back when, during a transitional period in his life. He was a listless 40-year-old, and Una was a "headstrong...impatient" 12. Their subsequent relationship resulted in a prison term for Ray, and a figurative scarlet letter for Una. But, she has felt a lingering sense of something unfinished about them, and has tracked him down for some closure. Ray, having long since relocated, changed his name, and started his life over, is understandably upset to see Una arrive at his office.
Harrower takes his time letting the events of Blackbird unfold. He doles out the back story as needed, content to leave the audience guessing until the right moment. And he refreshingly avoids judging either character or their situation, thus allowing the viewer to do so on his or her own. Of course, when a play is as much of a moral quagmire as Blackbird, audience members may feel uneasy about feeling sympathy towards an admitted child molester.
But, the play's power lies in its surreptitious ability to make the audience see the characters on their own terms, not society's. Ray, having since done copious amounts of research on child molesters to find out why he did what he did, does not identify himself as "one of them." He talks, instead, about the qualities of Una's that touched his heart, none of which his adult girlfriend at the time possessed (such as maturity). Later, when Una states that as a child she had "suspiciously adult yearnings," it's a revealing piece of information that suggests the degree to which she may have pursued him. As Blackbird progresses, it becomes less about blame and more about the loss of true love.
Set designer Scott Pask confines Ray and Una to a one-room environment where they cannot get away from each other. His stunning office set gets everything right, from the scuffs on the white walls to the generic paneled ceiling. Lighting designer Paul Gallo, almost exclusively using the set's overhead fluorescents, bathes the pair in harsh light that exposes them, warts and all. Sound designer Darron L. West nails the low industrial murmur of the office's central air system perfectly. Mantello's direction pulls all these elements together with deft, tension-filled staging that emphasizes the overall theme that these two wounded souls are haunted by each other.
Bringing this point home with burning immediacy are the powerful performances by Daniels and Pill. Whether he's doing damage control or facing his demons, Daniels is like a ravaged, frayed nerve throughout. Pill is every bit his equal, donning an icy cold veneer that eventually gives way to warmer, more vulnerable layers. Their metaphorical boxing match gets my vote for the most riveting onstage battle since teacher and student went head-to-head in David Mamet's Oleanna. (There is a third performer in cast, actress Nicola Peltz, but I can't say anything about her without giving away a big surprise.)
I should also say that Daniels and Pill are so convincing that, for the duration of the play, I forgot they were acting, and just took it on faith that they were those people. That's the power of Blackbird. We don't judge these people (at least, I didn't), we just accept them as they are, and we go on their turbulent journey with them. If you can get a ticket, I suggest you do so, and, in the words of another writer from the British Isles, watch this bird "take these broken wings and learn to fly...into the light of the dark black night."