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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

I never wanted to hurt you.— Ray
You Did.—Una
Allison Pill and Jeff Daniels in Blackbird
Allison Pill and Jeff Daniels in Blackbird (Photo: Joan Marcus)
When a British hit moves to Broadway or a major Off-Broadway venue without its original cast, it often suffers irreversible losses. Last year's Festen, though featuring some stellar American actors, was a prime example. Moon for the Misbegotten currently enjoying a limited Broadway run, probably wouldn't have made the move without Kevin Spacey and Eve Best. On the other hand, the American cast of Journey's End has deservely sent thumbs pointing up.

The New York production of David Harrower's Blackbird, which flew ahead of Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll in the Olivier Awards contest, not only has an American cast but an American director. Those actors, Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill, and that director, Joe Mantello, are reasons one, two and three for seeing Harrower's harrowing pas-de-deux of bitterness, shame, regret and passion.

The designers also play a major role in this all-American production's success— from Scott Pask's chillingly sterile corporate office to Paul Gallo's mood matching lighting (especially a moment when a temporary blackout leaves Una alone and visible only via a still lit hallway snack machine), to Laura Bauer's grown-up Lolita dress for Pill. In fact, on re-reading Lizzie Loveridge's London review, I suspect that Mantello's trimmed down version with its still tricky surprise ending but without the pyrotechnics of bringing a car on stage, has sharpened and intensified the dramatic tension. As for the actors, good as the Brits may have been, Daniels and Pill are remarkably right for these parts, and make it possible to swallow the play's less than believable elements.

What about Harrower's script? It's an intense psychodrama that won't let your mind wander even though there are times this story makes you wish you could switch channels. Like Martin McDonagh in whose The Lieutenant of Inishmore Ms. Pill was last seen, Harrower has an in your face nerviness. Unlike McDonagh who really knows the type of people and situations he portrays, Harrower based Blackbird on a case publicized in the media which is evident by a lack of authorial authenticity. That's not to say that behind the headlines stories, especially those involving a crime, can't and haven't been viable springboards for excellent novels and plays, or that Harrower has slavishly stuck to the source material (the case of a man who goes through with a date arranged over the internet even after he discovers his cyber pal is under the age of legal consent.) His use of that source material shows that he has the imagination to move beyond the facts to create a multi-faceted, provocative play, albeit, not without an abiding sense of the playwright at work.

Harrower's dialogue invites adjectives like "Mametian" and "Pinteresque," His subject matter is sure to evoke memories of Nabokov's Lolita and Paula Vogel's Pulitzer-prize winning How I learned to Drive. But the effectively used broken dialogue is hardly enough to put Harrower in the same class as Mamet and Pinter, and Vogel's play was more believable and subtle. That said, Blackbird, if not the really great new play we all keep waiting for, delivers the goods in terms of gripping theater plus hours of post theater discussion.

From the moment the lights dim and we see a nervous middle-aged man hustling a pencil thin young woman into the lunchroom of the dental supply company where he holds some sort of mid-level management position, you know that her visit is unexpected, unwelcome and that anything she says is best not overheard by the man's co-workers who can be seen as shadowy figures through the smoked glass windows. She embodies the expression "a wisp of a girl" and though she's in her late twenties, it's not a big stretch to see her at twelve, her age when the relationship that has brought her here began.

Despite the woman's big-little girl fragility, she obviously has the man at some sort of anxiety provoking disadvantage. For one thing, the name she uses, Ray, is not his current name but belongs to the past that we quickly learn haunts both of them. It's only through a picture of the dental company and its executives on the back cover of a trade magazine that provided her with a lead to his current location.

Needless to say, the recollections, recriminations and complex feelings that the woman's —her name is Una— unexpected arrival at Ray's workplace set in motion are as messy as the lunchroom with its clutter of leftover food and drinks. Without going into too much detail, Una and Ray once lived on the same street of some distant unnamed city and a casual conversation at a barbeque led to three months of secret meetings with the obviously inappropriate relationship consummated when Ray took the girl to a seaside guest house. This resulted in a three-year prison term for statutory rape for him and years of ostracism for her.

I can't say enough about the way Daniels and Pill delve into the complexities of their characters. My comment about one's constant awareness of the playwright's hand never applies to their acting. Neither takes any shortcuts in exposing the unhealed scar tissue of that long ago love affair which may be unfinished even now. And a love affair this is, unsavory as the age difference makes it.

Daniels, while hardly a Jekyll and Hyde, does manages to make us see the deeply conflicted man inside the likeable, decent Mr. Average. Pill too is not just a troubled pre-teen who let a major crush on an older man get out of hand but a woman as mixed up and uncertain about her feelings now as she was then. The two successive monologues that fill in the details on the information doled out so far, would be excruciatingly long if delivered by actors less able to keep us glued to every word.

Joe Mantello's roller-coaster pacing keeps the exhausting confrontation unfailingly dramatic, even through the all too predictable moment when the messy food gets swept off the lunch room table and the unpredictable and ambiguous trick ending (Think Neil LaBute's Wrecks).

As Harrower doesn't tie things up with a neat explanation about the whys and wherefores of this relationship, or the implications of the surprise finale, neither does he explain the title. Most likely he took it from biblical references to ravens and other black birds as being bad omens and their penchant for plucking out the eyes of sinners (a vengeance dream described by Una and made concrete by Ray's suffering from some sort of eye discomfort that he keeps rubbing). On the other hand, the sight of two blackbirds sitting together is also a symbol of peace and a good omen. As with any play that raises as many questions as it answers, you might walk out of the theater with the play's final image reminding you of two such blackbirds, or feeling more than a little queasy about the blackbird's more ominous associations.

Blackbird-London production
By David Harrower
directed by Joe Mantello
Cast: Jeff Daniel and Alison Pill
Sets: Scott Pask
Costumes: Laura Bauer
Lights: Paul Gallo
Sound: Darron L West
Running Time: 90 minutes without an intermission
Mahattan Theatre Club, Stage 1 City Center,131 West 55th Street, (212) 581-1212
From 3/15/07 to 4/29/07-extended to 6/10/07; opening 4/10/07
Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m.; after 5/01, Tuesday to Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m
Tickets : 67.50, $25, students.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer April 14th matinee
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