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A CurtainUp Review

"I never meant to hurt you"— Ray, about their long-ago illicit relationship.

"You did"— Una, who may not have served a jail sentence as Ray did, but to his complaint that he's served his sentence replies I did the sentence. I did your sentence for 15 years. I lost because I never had time to begin.""
Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels (Photo: Brigitte Lacombe)
David Harrower's harrowing 2005 play Blackbird is the aptly named playwright's dramatization of an actual media scandal about an American and a 12-year-old girl he met on the internet. It is essentially a disturbing, social issue oriented psychological thriller in which a young woman confronts a man she hasn't seen for fifteen years. She seems out for vengeance. He is horrified at her sudden arrival in his work place. It's a confrontation full of physical and emotional twists and turns.

The 2007 Off-Broadway production was gripping enough for me to remember it well. And so, with the tricky surprise ending no longer a surprise, I headed to the Belasco not sure if this often painful to watch psychodrama could still hold me in its grip as it did then?

Given that Blackbird is also very much an actor's play, seeing Jeff Daniels, who's become more famous since 2007 as the editor of TVs The Newsroom, is back as Ray, a middle-aged man with a dark past he wants to forget who was memorably overwhelmed with terror and discomfort by having his past intrude on his current life. Could he once more pull off the fear-anger-regret cycle as he did nine years ago? And could Michelle Williams capture the big-little girl fragility of Una?

To cut to the chase, my worries were unfounded. There's nothing been there/done that about this revival.

Blackbird was never a groundbreaking story. The appeal of pre-pubescent girls for older men was made famous by Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita and Paula Vogel's Pulitzer Prize-winning How I Learned to Drive which was admittedly inspired by Nabokov's story. But while I still think How I learned to Drive is a more subtle play, Blackbird this time around seemed more interesting and thought provoking psychologically then when I was more focused on what's going to happen next.

As for the current Una, Michelle Williams is a worthy partner for Daniels. Her Una is a more immediately aggressive still wounded victim of her pre-teen sexualization than I recall Pill to have been. This has also made Daniels make Ray come across a harder, tougher and yet more nervous opponent in this cat and mouse game. And despite the more immediately explosive beginning does once again evolve into the almost unbearably sad feelings of bitterness, shame and regrets about their inappropriate long-ago relationship. He's not a serial, pedophile but an average guy with some deeply conflicted feeling he allowed to get out of hand. She was a troubled teen who mistook a crush for love. Both are still fragile, emotionally scarred people.

Needless to say, the recollections, recriminations and complex feelings that Una's unexpected arrival at Ray's workplace sets in motion are as messy as Scott Pask's colorless corporate lunchroom with its leftover paper goods, food and drinks. Without going into too much detail, Una and Ray's troublesome history began when they lived on the same street of a distant unnamed city and a casual conversation at a barbeque led to three months of secret meetings that inevitably goes further. The inevitable consummation and its disastrous aftermath for him (a 3-year jail term) and her (years of ostracism and a go-nowhere life), are detailed in two powerful hi and her monologues.

While some London hit shows don't always cross the pond successfully without their original cast, the American actors brought all the bitterness, shame, regret and passion called to the Manhattan Theatre Club production. Director Joe Mantello trimmed a half hour off the London version but retained all the twists and turns. With the help of his designers he also managed to effectively stage the tricky surprise ending (which critics were then and still are honor bound not to reveal) without leaving the single setting for a parking lot that actually brought a car on stage in London.

The direction and design work once again plays a major role in this revival's success. Mantello, who once again directs, has trimmed off another ten minutes. Scott Pask has recreated the chillingly sterile corporate office lunch room with its smoky windows through which we see Ray's co-workers passing by to evoke Ray's fearful awareness the always watchful Peeping Toms of society. The rubbish that Ray keeps stuffing into the overly full trash can predictably but dramatically end up all over the place, an obvious symbol of their messy and still unfinished relationship.

It's easy to imagine the sliver thin, Williams as the 12-year-old Una in the sexy grown-up Lolita-ish dress Ann Roth has designed for her. Brian MacDevitt and Fitz Patton provide mood supportive lighting and sounds.

Even if you knew what that twisty ending was all about, you'd still leave pondering the whys and wherefores of Una and Ray's relationship and its unresolved post-traumatic stresses. Harrower leaves you to draw your own conclusions.

As for the title, Ray's suffering from some sort of itchy eye problem, points to biblical references to black birds being bad omens and having a penchant for plucking out sinners eyes which is echoed by Ray's itchy eye problem. on the other hand when two blackbirds sit together it's considered a sign of peace so optimists might leave the theater hopeful that even the closing shocker isn't a confirmation of the title's more ominous associations.

Blackbird by David Harrower
Directed by Joe Mantello
Cast: Jeff Daniel and Michelle Williams
Sets: Scott Pask
Costumes: Ann Roth
Lights: Brian MacDevitt
Sound: Fitz Patton
Stage Manager: Jill Cordle
Running Time: 80 minutes without an intermission (no late seating, or return to seats if leaving during performance)
Belasco Theater 111 West 44th Street 212/239-6200
Thursdays 7pm; Frdays, Sat, Tues, 8pm; Sat 2pm
From 2/05/16; opening 3/10/16; closing 6/12/16.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer March 16th press performance
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