Sunday, May 13, 2007

PLAY: "Blackbird"

Although Blackbird is an ambiguous title, the playwright's name--David Harrower--manages to perfectly pronounce the tone of the piece. Like other famous Davids (Mamet comes to mind), he has created a terse, harrowing, 90-minute showdown between an office manager and the 27-year-old girl he had "illegal relations" with when she was twelve. Not going the easy route, he makes Ray (Jeff Daniels) the victim. The moment we meet him, he stands in a self-defeated slouch; when he speaks, it is with a choking sound, as if his mouth were clenched into a fist. Meanwhile, Una (Alison Pill), is the cat-like tormentor, languorously mocking Ray from a plastic chair, curling and uncurling both her body and her accusations in sudden rushes of text. She plays him like a ball of string, batting him around with the truth and staring him down with piercing, innocent eyes--like those of a child--and an adult, almost Cheshire-like grin.

Harrower's script gives them both ample opportunity to play. Una isn't really there for closure, and Ray's conception of pedophilia defies expectations: "I was never one of them," he claims. There's a bleak humor in realizing that Ray means it: he admits that his trial would have gone better if he had been abused as a child, and that if he had managed to return to her bedside, he would have looked even guiltier (he flight at least makes it seem as if he recognized his guilt).
As my theatergoing friend pointed out, this is akin to the justifications (and tone) of Martin in Edward Albee's The Goat. But whereas Albee was writing a satirical tragedy with heavy doses of melodrama to lighten the blows, Harrower is more interested in the uncomfortably bleak question of whether or not love can ever be wrong.

Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill are both extremely talented performers her, and their nuances are what make that question so hard to answer. Una acts a little neurotic, but if she really is traumatized, then perhaps love is a trauma. Ray, although at first angrily dismissive, is a man still on the edge, simply trying to protect what little dignity he's been left with after prison. The two are fragile, and the play's strongest, most settling moment, is a post-coital remembrance:

"Did I cum?" she asks, with the subtext of lingering trauma. Him, in ragged response: "I thought you did. Yes." "How could you tell?" she says, so much like a child that it's painful. "Your face was flushed. You kept your eyes shut a long time."
The sentences are short and natural, as is the style of the entire play. While it's easier to believe she was a shameless girl with a crush, stupid enough to start, and that he was a lonely man too stupid to stop her, Harrower takes a more critical approach. When Ray says, "You weren't like other children.... You knew more about love than I did, than she did," we believe him. Harrower also manages to conflate two issues: after Una is found, the detectives all but rape her (cleaning her out) to get their evidence: "They asked me what you'd done to me and then told me what you'd done to me when I wouldn't." It's not an easy (or pretty) task, but it's staggeringly effective.

The only place where Blackbird has its dark wings clipped is in Joe Mantello's lighting choice. After going through so much effort to construct a realistic office on stage (kudos to Scott Pask), and then to focus the action within a single, prison-like conference room, it doesn't make sense to change the natural direction for the two lengthy monologues each character gets. Granted, it isn't easy to find things for the other character to do while they're being lectured, but that's the director's job. The harsh, soft lights of the office (Paul Gallo's design) are enough: the theatrics of dimming them comes across as cheap and distracting.

Blackbird is a show well-worth seeing, capable of casting some doubts on what is otherwise a morally unambiguous issue. For all that the dialogue is naturally awkward, full of false starts and stops, it's at the same time technically crisp and precise, rehearsed just enough to feel fresh and not at all sloppy. Whether or not you agree with Harrower's stark appraisal of love, Blackbird is an important piece for Manhattan Theater Club, no Doubt about it.

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